A friend who is always there to lend companionship, advice and a helping hand can turn a kid's life around. Circle of Friends is a mentorship program that supports volunteers to become just that kind of friend to youth in need in the Sisters community.
Circle of Friends has been at work in Sisters since 2011, but it's just now coming into its own as a fully-fledged non-profit in Sisters Country.
"It's really just this year that the organization work has been going on," said board president Jan McGowan.
Twelve children have been paired with volunteer mentors, who are committed to spending time with them at least once a week year-round, executive director Beth Hanson reported.
Mentorship is a significant commitment, Hanson noted.
"It's a three-month process before they're actually matched," she said. That process includes a background check.
Then the commitment really begins. Circle of Friends is based around mentorship that lasts from the first years of school all the way through high school.
Currently the oldest child matched with a mentor is in fourth grade. Ideally, the friendship starts in kindergarten."
Mentors help the children develop life skills and build social skills, support them in school and accompany them in their communities. Activities can range from working on homework to cooking healthy meals to practicing a musical instrument or playing sports and going on outings.
"Quality one-on-one time is the key thing," Hanson said.
Students who would benefit from the program are identified by teachers or by Sisters Family Access Network. The need is larger than many in Sisters might suppose. Some five to 10 students come into Sisters schools each year who have significant needs.
"I was shocked," said McGowan. "There is this perception of affluency here and this is kind of under the radar. There's this need; it's not very visible."
According to McGowan, none of the children currently matched are in a two-parent home situation and "many of them are not with any parent."
It is not the role of the mentor to intervene in family life.
"Our focus is the child," said Hanson, who is herself a mentor. "We're not going to change that family dynamic. Our job is to be a friend to that child. We're not there to parent; we're not there to do anything inside their home."
The children's guardians generally respond very well to having additional support and a positive role model and influence in the children's lives.
Circle of Friends grew out of the principles that drove Friends of the Children, which was founded in 1993 by now-Sisters-resident Duncan Campbell. Campbell overcame a challenging childhood and vowed to help other children do the same.
Research into outcomes from Friends of the Children demonstrates that the most important predictor of a child's success is the presence of a positive adult role model in their life.
Circle of Friends is committed to assessing its own work.
"Tracking outcomes is something we're really serious about," said McGowan. "We're implementing best practices and we want to be sure we're successful here."
Those who cannot commit to the mentorship role can find other ways to volunteer or assist, Hanson notes.