Mackenzie Scott donates $1 million to Friends of the Children in Detroit

Martez Duncan can’t erase from his mind the scene he stumbled upon when he picked up his six children from a relative. The children had stayed there before and had never said a word to worry him. So he was shocked to find his children injured, half-naked and neglected in a house with a backed-up sewage system. Duncan found no adults at home.

Duncan’s 5-year-old son had ingested cocaine and was unresponsive. Paramedics rushed him to hospital and resuscitated him.

“That landscape traumatized me,” Duncan said. “I just felt like I let my kids down.” If he hadn’t had two jobs, he thought, he might have found out before it got so bad.

After that day, much of life had to be pieced together, one way or another.

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“Give us a month”

Duncan quit his job to take care of his children – he didn’t want to lose sight of them. With no income or trusted childcare, he lost his truck and the family moved to a shelter, then to a friend. Eventually, Duncan landed two jobs, but the family still struggled to find stable housing and money to pay for food.

For a year, Duncan felt like he just couldn’t organize himself. All he cared about was making sure he could keep his kids safe with him. But things were so difficult.

When a child protection social worker suggested Duncan enroll his young son in a youth mentorship program called Friends of the Children, Duncan waved him off. He had major problems to solve and a life to rebuild. Mentoring for one of his children was just going to take time. And he had been exposed to so many programs before. Duncan thought that this one, like most of them, just wouldn’t be able to give him the help he needed.

Then Letitia Williams, director of the nonprofit program, called Duncan. “Give us a chance,” she urged. “Give us a month.”

A Long-Term Commitment to the Children of Detroit

Friends of the Children is a nearly 30-year-old nonprofit that didn’t make national headlines until late August when billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott quietly gifted it $44 million. . It matches vulnerable young people aged 4 to 6 with a mentor, and guarantees this mentorship for four hours a week for 12 years. No matter what.

To call these children “at risk” is to hide their situation with words that hide the harsh realities of their daily lives. Many of them are involved in foster care or the juvenile justice system, live in fear of deportation or have suffered childhood trauma.

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“There’s the housing insecurity that our families face, there’s systemic barriers in general with the education system, welfare, the list goes on,” said Brittany Merritt, acting executive director of the 2-year-old Detroit chapter of Friends of the Children, which will receive $1.1 million from Scott’s donation. “It’s a daily struggle for some of our families.”

Their assigned mentors, who the organization calls “friends,” provide one-on-one support so these children can complete high school, stay out of the juvenile justice system, and avoid becoming teenage parents.

For the most part, it meets these objectives. A third-party evaluator found that 83% of youth participating in Friends of the Children earned a high school diploma or GED nationally, compared to 55% of foster youth who were not involved in the non-profit organization. Only 7% of children in the program end up being involved in the juvenile justice system, compared to 37% of those in foster care. And 98% of them wait to be parents after their teenage years; it’s 86% for non-participating foster children.

To help a child, you have to help the whole family

“Mentoring is the right approach because we’ve been with them for 12 years no matter what,” Merritt said. “It’s important and it makes a difference in their lives – a positive difference.”

The friends are salaried professionals who care for about eight children at a time. But their unconventional job description goes far beyond the time spent and the pep talks. Responsibilities listed in a recent job posting included developing and promoting each child’s strengths, talents and abilities; help ensure physical and emotional well-being; teaching life skills and academic skills and providing practical and socio-emotional supports to the family.

The son of Martez Duncan, right, 8, of Detroit, plays a game of keeping a ball in the air with Jordan Brown of Friends of the Children during a visit to Friends of the Children-Detroit on Tuesday, 30 August 2022. The nonprofit matches children with long-term mentors who commit to meeting one-on-one with their matched child four hours a week, for 12 years.  They operate on the belief that working on a range of family needs over the long term is the best way to help children who might otherwise end up in the child welfare system.

This requirement for family support alludes to the “two-generation” approach that Friends of the Children takes in all of its chapters. The work of the organization is based on the belief that to help a child, you have to help the whole family. Regularly. And for a long time.

That’s why Jordan Brown, who’s been friends with Duncan’s son for about a year now, and his predecessor Kevin Finch helped Duncan with everything from paying for food and hotel rooms to escorting his children at the dentist and the doctor, even sitting in the waiting room with them for hours. Once, when Duncan was feeling overwhelmed, Brown seemed to magically appear in his kitchen, cooking dinner for the kids and helping them get started on their homework. He took all the kids on picnics and to the movies.

To Duncan, Brown looked like a superhero. He had many strengths, clearly. But his superpower seemed to hear silent cries for help.

“I never had to tell them what the need was,” Duncan said. “It’s as if they were in my mind. They would just pop up and say, ‘Hey, I’m picking up the kids and taking them out, you need a break.’ ”

“It changed my life, and it was what the kids and I needed at the time,” Duncan said. He considers Brown and Finch brothers.

“I try to develop as strong a relationship as possible with all of my mentees as well as their parents and caregivers because I want it to be more than just a job,” Brown said. “I want them to know that I really care about their personal needs and things like that, which is what I really do. And that’s the main reason I wanted to do a role like this is to help not only children, but their entire ecosystem.

Uplifting a child with mentorship and love

In two years on the program, Duncan and Brown have noticed changes in Duncan’s son, who the Free Press does not name to protect his future privacy.

He swore a lot. He said “I hate you. I want to die.” He looks like he wanted to kill himself. The boy, along with two of Duncan’s other children, attempted suicide. But now Duncan’s son seems more able to control his emotions and his anger.

The boy says one thing he learned from Brown was to just run away when his siblings irritate him. “Just go somewhere else and count to five,” said the son Brown taught him. The hotel where the Duncans lived for a while had green space outside. When he got angry, the son went there to decompress. When it was too cold to go out, he counted to five. It helped me.

Brown worked with Duncan’s son to keep his cool when things didn’t go his way. “I know he has a past where he had to deal with different things that might have shaped his psyche a bit,” Brown said. “So it’s kind of about methodically getting him to a point where he can be confident and confident in all situations.”

Brown enjoys picking up the kid from school. This gives him a front row seat to see how much the boy loves his teachers and how much they love him back. Duncan’s son is liberal with hugs and compliments. “You can’t help but love this kid,” Brown said. “The best part of working with (him) is just seeing how pure he is and how authentic he is with his love that he shows people, including me.”

The son of Martez Duncan, 8, of Detroit, punches Brittany Merritt, acting executive director of Friends of Children-Detroit and director of development for Friends National, as Duncan shows off his shoes to his friend Jordan Brown during a visit to Friends of the Children-Detroit on Tuesday, August 30, 2022. The nonprofit matches children with long-term mentors who commit to meeting one-on-one with their matched child four hours a week, for 12 years.  They operate on the belief that working on a range of family needs over the long term is the best way to help children who might otherwise end up in the child welfare system.

The $1.1 million donation is the largest the Detroit chapter of Children’s Friends has ever received. Merritt says the money will accelerate the chapter’s growth, allowing it to hire more friends and, by extension, serve more families in and even beyond Metro Detroit. It will also make it easier for the organization to help families meet their immediate food, transportation and housing needs.

Duncan just bought a house in Garden City. He is a director of Ford Motor Co. and provides home health care services. Things look a lot brighter than before for the youngster who is now in third year at a new school and enjoys running, swimming and coloring. And things look brighter for his family.

Jennifer Brookland covers child protection for the Detroit Free Press in partnership with Report for America. Contact her at [email protected]

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