Editorial: Early mentoring helps youth succeed

Published Sep. 29, 2014

At-risk children need innovative solutions to propel them toward success. Eckerd Community Alternatives has launched a program to engage children in the foster care system with paid mentors who will partner with them from grade school to graduation. The program's laudable goal is to make a long-term investment in the bay area's neediest youth and steer them away from teenage pregnancy, the criminal justice system and dropping out of high school. The entire community should support this early intervention effort and help the program succeed.

Friends of the Children is a national mentoring program founded in 1993 in Portland, Ore. The program focuses on children ages 5 and 6 in foster care with a variety of risk factors, including being born to teenage parents, suffering from generational abuse and having parents who have been incarcerated. Program organizers screen out children who have behavioral or mental health issues or who already have strong familial support systems. In Portland, more than 200 students have finished the program, which starts at age 5 and ends at 18. Some 98 percent of the Portland program's graduates avoided becoming teen parents. Another 97 percent steered clear of criminal involvement, and 83 percent received a high school diploma or passed the GED test. Half went on to pursue postsecondary education.

Eckerd, which is the Department of Children and Families' lead agency in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, has hired eight mentors who each will be assigned to eight children. The volunteer program calls for the mentors to interact with the students, who are in kindergarten or first grade, for two hours each week at their schools and two hours outside the classroom. The first year of a student's participation in the program will be funded by the state. Eckerd will shoulder the reminder of the costs, which it estimates will reach $800,000 by the program's third year and eventually $1.5 million a year.

Eckerd's new mentoring program rightly aims to help provide the neediest children with consistent, personalized attention. It also is notable that Eckerd is targeting children that other programs might deem too difficult to engage. "We only want the kid that has been written off,'' Lorita Shirley, Eckerd's chief of program services for Florida, said in a recent interview. "We're saying give us that kid, and give us a shot at changing that child's future."

Based on Friends of the Children's age restrictions, 600 bay area children qualified for the program. But funding constraints allow only 64 children to participate this year. This is where businesses and community members can step in. Eckerd welcomes monetary donations to help pay for additional mentors or in-kind gifts, such as haircuts.

More children should have access to a consistent, affirming adult presence in their lives. Friends of the Children appears to be a promising effort to make a long-term impact for at-risk youth. Breaking the cycle of generational poverty and the societal ills it often spawns is in everyone's best interest.