PHOTOGRAPHY PROVIDED BY FRIENDS OF THE CHILDREN
Street smart, yet naïve is how Duncan Campbell describes himself as a young man. His earliest memories were of waiting at the bar for his parents at the tavern they frequented every night in North Portland. Duncan’s mom had a job but his father could never keep one and was imprisoned twice and spent time in and out of rehab.
His parents’ focus was on escaping through alcohol and they never once attended a school sports event of Duncan’s. Duncan was left to fend for himself or find other trustworthy adults who could steer him through life. With this neglectful upbringing, Duncan’s life could easily have taken a negative trajectory, but instead he developed extreme self-sufficiency and his lifelong motto of Campbells don’t quit.
And, even more compelling, Duncan became committed to help other children avoid a childhood like his and the seed for the children’s nonprofit he would later found was planted.
Duncan overcame the trauma of his early years and went on to play football and graduate from high school and college, become a lawyer and a CPA, marry and have a family and eventually create a highly successful timber investment business. While in law school, Duncan took a break to work in the Portland juvenile court, and later, in a Eugene juvenile detention center. Through his work with juvenile offenders, Duncan got to see how the system essentially recycled kids and sent them out to the street to repeat crimes.
There was no personal development, little or no change in their outer world upon release. In juvenile justice, the options to create change in a young person were prevention, intervention and rehabilitation, but he knew that most times, intervention was too late and rehabilitation ineffective.
When he successfully sold The Campbell Group 25 years ago, Duncan could focus his efforts on his dream. Duncan hired a child psychologist and founded the Children’s Institute to help him create a program that would help give kids the support and opportunities that he lacked as a child and encourage resiliency. He conceived of a program that would start with mentoring troubled kids during kindergarten and stay with them all the way through high school. There was nothing like it anywhere in the country. In May 1993, Duncan founded Friends of the Children, thereby keeping his promise. “I wanted to change one kid’s life,” he comments.
Friends of the Children began in Northeast Portland with three carefully selected Friends who each mentored eight children for 12 full years — no matter what. Friends are college graduates, as the program highly values education, are paid a livable wage and given an allowance for activities with their kids, with whom they spend four hours a week.
Friends of the Children breaks a lot of rules from traditional social work and perhaps that’s why it works so well. While social work has strict boundaries, the Friend becomes part of a larger family network to whom a child can refer for resources as they age. The program aims to have the Friend be the first person the child calls should they need a supportive adult.
From its inception, Duncan arranged for a third-party evaluation, as he wanted evidence-based results. The organization participated in an eight-year National Institute of Health study and the results were impressive. Children with a Friend mentor had a high school graduation rate of 85 percent, though most of their parents had not graduated, 92 percent stayed out of juvenile justice, though many of their parents were in the system and 98 percent did not become teen parents, though many had teen parents, themselves. Forty percent of mentored kids go on to pursue additional education, as well.
Duncan comments, “The average Friend stays with us seven to eight years, although we have dozens of Friends who have remained in their roles for 12 to 13 years. We have teachers who are Friends and Friends with masters degrees. The goal is to pair children with a Friend of the same race, and so far, that has been
The program targets the kids in kindergarten who present the most challenges, those already acting out or who are completely withdrawn, through recommendations by teachers. Duncan says, “One of my favorite stories is of a young woman who was a foster kid and treated horribly at home. Through the support of her Friend, she went on to complete high school and college and was the first of our graduates to come back and work as a Friend. She is a very empathic
Friend and has a lovely young family of her own.”
Friends helps their kids in all kinds of practical ways, such as buying an alarm if a child can’t get to school on time and teaching them how to launder their own clothes. Together, they prepare meals and kids learn how to serve a meal and clean up after themselves. Reading together is a cornerstone of their relationship.
“Additionally, Friends offer opportunities that an average middle-class child has, such as going to a museum and being in nature, to nurture interest in the broader world so they aren’t as interested in sex, drugs and alcohol,” says Duncan.“It’s hard when a Friend drops a child off at home, knowing the world they are re-entering is potentially one filled with neglect, alcohol and drugs.”
Friends of the Children has been very successful in Portland, Oregon, but Duncan wondered how it would work in a neighborhood, like Harlem in New York. Duncan connected with several elementary schools in Harlem, where they identified 100 kindergarteners through a sophisticated process. “The kids were either violent or clingy, and had many other factors against them, such as having a single mother, incarcerated father, being on welfare or not participating in school to grade level. It’s a reverse draft,” says Duncan. “We’ve had teachers break down in tears through the selection process. Teachers, principals and school boards love us.”
Currently, Friends of the Children is in ten cities, with several more to open before the organization’s 25th anniversary in May 2018. Portland has grown to employ more than fifty Friends. Klamath Falls, Gresham, Seattle, Harlem, the Bronx, Boston, Tampa Bay and Cornwall, England, are among other cities with a Friends organization. Each city is its own nonprofit, and the national parent organization remains in Portland. Because the program deals with causes, not symptoms, it is extremely effective. For every $1 spent on a child, studies have shown a seven-fold return.
Friends of the Children recently received a social innovation grant to add three-to-five new cities, including Central Oregon and a neighborhood in San Francisco. Seattle will use the grant to double the number of kids served. The organization is exploring expansion into Chicago, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Austin and Detroit. Friends of the Children owns three facilities in Portland, where kids and their Friends can meet after school to do homework, crafts and learn practical skills, and there are Friends-owned homes in other cities, as well.
When asked about success stories, Duncan candidly admits that although a child can start out in a positive direction, there are pulls to the dark side. He offers, “One of kids the we worked with had a lot of challenges, but was blessed with an incredible Friend. He became a quarterback in high school and received a full ride to Oregon State, but couldn’t pass his SATs. So, instead, the youth went to community college, where he got involved with a gang. He got caught with a felony, but the Judge on his case had attended a Friends of the Children event and, knowing the kid’s background, was able to get him released. With some support from us, the young man got a job as an apprentice welder. This one-time gang member is about to become a supervisor at his company and he’s an incredible father.
“Among the program graduates, there’s one boy who attends the University of Oregon who became vice president of students at the University. Our program can’t guarantee a positive outcome, but our success stories greatly outweigh the others.”
Duncan enjoys spending time with the program youth and truly is the high point in his life. Duncan lives part time in Sisters and is highly engaged in the launch of Friends of the Children-Central Oregon where he will spend time with program youth and has been instrumental in the start-up funding and development of the local chapter. The Central Oregon chapter of Friends of the Children will launch next month after raising close to a million dollars from local donors.
The Oregon Business Journal has named Friends of Children the number one most respected nonprofit in Oregon for two years in a row. The national organization’s annual fundraiser is one of the top three nonprofit events in Portland each year. Duncan’s ambitious goal is to have Friends in 25 cities by the year 2025, and given his track record, that seems entirely possible. PBS did a documentary on visionaries which profiled Duncan and he has co-written a book about his experience entitled The Art of Being There.
“Friends of the Children gives me peace and contentment. Being a social entrepreneur and making real change in these children’s lives, there’s nothing better.” Duncan concludes, “I was put on earth to be a Friend.”
To get involved with Friends of the Children chapter in Central Oregon contact Kim Hatfield at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to