With a little financial help from Uncle Sam – along with lots of private donations – Kearns-based Friends of the Children Utah is thrivingJul 07, 2023 11:33AM ● By Carl Fauver
Jack (R) is one of nine mentors, called “friends,” who works with about eight youth each week through the Kearns-based Friends of the Children Utah. (friendsutah.org)
A program to assist kids in need – born three decades ago up in the Pacific Northwest – found a most inopportune time to make its way into Utah. But despite its challenging launch, Friends of the Children Utah is now thriving – bursting at the seams, to be more accurate.
“Friends of the Children Utah opened in Kearns (5361 S. 4220 West, Suite B) in March 2020 – the same time everything went into (coronavirus) lockdown across the country,” Executive Director Kelsey Lewis said. “But after serving only nine Utah kids that year, we are now up to serving 61 youth and their families.”
Lewis herself was not yet in the picture for that Utah beginning. She was hired into the organization last winter, bringing 28 years of experience serving our state’s most vulnerable children and families. A University of Utah graduate – with degrees in Sociology and Women’s Studies – Lewis says she was sold on Friends of the Children because of the long-range approach the organization takes to helping kids.
“Our slogan or motto is ‘12+ years, no matter what,’” Lewis explains. “That means we are committed to helping kids for the long haul. We enroll children into our program when they are about kindergarten age, 4 to 6. From there, our mentors, called ‘friends,’ nurture them through high school.”
At least that’s how it’s being done in other states. With only three years under their belts here, the oldest of the 61 youth now in the Utah program are age 9.
Each youth in Friends of the Children Utah spends four hours per week with their adult “friend.” They can be together anywhere from parks or museums to parent-teacher conferences. The program is not something parents apply for. Lewis says organizations like the Division of Child and Family Services and the state foster care system make referrals. For starters, 100% of the kids are living at or below the poverty level. Most have only their biological mother in the home with them.
According to a news release from the organization, “Friends-Utah serves children who face multiple systemic obstacles, including lack of mental health care access, economic insecurity, parental incarceration, housing and food insecurity, educational inequities and other traumatic experiences.”
“Providing on-going care to children like this is not cheap,” Lewis added. “Our annual budget is $1.5 million, with 90% of that going to labor.”
Friends of the Children Utah got its start here in 2020, after various philanthropic foundations raised a total of $1.5 million dollars. Donors included: Intermountain Health, United Way of Salt Lake, Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Utah and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As the program continues on in our state, 20% of the budget is now provided by federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funding.
“Our mentors are paid and I am committed to providing salaries competitive with teachers’ pay,” Lewis added. “Our ‘friends’ are mostly ages 25 to 35, with a starting salary of $50,000. They work with eight kids per week, four hours each. We provide a 401k retirement program along with medical coverage. Our mentors are required to have 4-year college degrees and at least two years’ experience working with youth.”
After working eight years at a Salt Lake elementary school, 2010 West High School graduate Chris Barber fit the bill, and was hired by Friends of the Children Utah in February 2021.
“I applied online and was interviewed four times before I got the job,” Barber said. “They are very picky about who gets hired to be a friend. I love the long-term commitment of our program. When I taught in elementary school, I would have 25 kids for just one year. It’s hard to build a strong bond in that time. In this program, I have such strong relationships with my boys and their families.”
In cities where Friends of the Children has a longer track record, their success numbers have been impressive. Some 83% earn their high school diploma or GED… 92% go on to post-secondary education, the military or the workforce… and 93% steer clear of juvenile justice system entanglements. The program is now operating in 19 states and sovereign tribal nations.
Unfortunately, with only a 2,300 square foot club house available at their current location, Friends of the Children Utah may not remain forever in the Kearns-Taylorsville area. Lewis and her team are now scouting Salt Lake Valley-wide for a location that’s at least twice that big, with public transportation accessible.
To learn more about Friends of the Children Utah – and perhaps to donate to the “12+ years” program – visit friendsutah.org. λ