A Detroit nonprofit got a $1 million gift. Its approach: Stick with kids no matter what.

·8 min read

Martez Duncan cannot erase from his mind the scene he came upon when he arrived to pick up his six children from a relative's house. The kids had stayed there before and never said a word to make him worry. So, he was shocked to find his children injured, half-naked and neglected in a house with a backed-up sewage system. Duncan couldn't find any adults at home.

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

“Just that scenery was traumatizing to me,” Duncan said. “I just felt like I had let my kids down.” If he hadn’t been working two jobs, he thought to himself, he could have caught this before it got so bad.

After that day, a lot of life had to be pieced back together, somehow.

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'Give us one month'

Duncan quit work to take care of his children − he didn’t want to let them out of his sight. Without his income or trusted child care, he lost his truck and the family moved into a shelter, then to a friend’s house. Eventually, Duncan picked up two jobs, but the family was still struggling to find stable housing and money to pay for food.

For a year, Duncan felt like he just couldn’t get things together. All he cared about was making sure he got to keep his children safe, with him. But things were so hard.

When a child welfare caseworker suggested Duncan enroll his young son in a youth mentoring program called Friends of the Children, Duncan waved her off. He had major problems to solve, and a life to rebuild. Mentoring for one of his kids was just going to take up time. And he’d been put in touch with so many programs before. Duncan figured this one, like most of them, just wouldn’t be able to give him the help he needed.

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

A long-term commitment to Detroit kids

Friends of the Children is a nearly 30-year-old nonprofit that had made few national headlines before the end of August, when billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott quietly gifted it $44 million. It matches vulnerable youths between the ages of 4 and 6 with a mentor, and it guarantees that mentorship for four hours a week for 12 years. No matter what.

To call these children “at-risk” is to glaze their situations over with words that coat the rough realities of their day-to-day lives. Many of them are involved in the foster care or juvenile justice system, live in fear of getting evicted or experienced childhood trauma.

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

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

Overwhelmingly, it meets these goals. A third-party evaluator found that 83% of youths participating in Friends of the Children nationally earned a high school diploma or GED, compared with 55% of youths in foster care who weren't involved with the nonprofit. Just 7% of kids in the program end up involved in the juvenile justice system, compared with 37% of those in foster care. And 98% of them wait to parent until after their teen years; it’s 86% for nonparticipating foster kids.

To help a child, the whole family must be helped

“Mentorship is the right approach because we’re with them for 12 years no matter what,” Merritt said. “That’s significant and makes a difference in their lives − a positive one.”

Friends are salaried professionals who carry a caseload of about eight children at a time. But their unconventional job description goes well beyond spending time and providing pep talks. Responsibilities listed on a recent job posting included nurturing and promoting each child’s strengths, talents and abilities; helping to ensure physical and emotional well-being; teaching life and academic skills, and providing concrete and social-emotional supports for the family.

That family support requirement hints at the “two-generation” approach Friends of the Children takes in all its chapters. The organization’s work is underpinned by the belief that to help a child, you have to help the whole family. Consistently. And for a long time.

That’s why Jordan Brown, who has been assigned as the friend for Duncan's son for about a year now, and his predecessor Kevin Finch have helped Duncan with everything from paying for food and hotel rooms to taking his kids to their dentist and doctor appointments, even sitting in the waiting room with them for hours. One time 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 has taken all the kids on a picnic and to the movies.

To Duncan, Brown seemed like a superhero. He had many strengths, clearly. But his superpower seemed to be hearing silent calls for help.

“I never had to tell them what the need was,” Duncan said. “It’s like they would be in my mind. They’d just pop up and say, ‘Hey, I’m coming to get the kids and take them out, you need a break.' ”

“It was just life-changing, and it was what me and the kids needed at the time,” Duncan said. He considers Brown and Finch as brothers.

“I try to develop as strong a rapport as I can with all my mentees as well as their parents and caregivers because I want it to be more than just a job,” said Brown. “I want them to know that I really care about their personal needs and things like that, which I genuinely do. And that's the main reason why I wanted to get into a role like this is to help not just the kids but their whole ecosystem.”

Building up a child with mentorship and love

In two years in the program, Duncan and Brown have noticed changes in Duncan's son, whom the Free Press is not naming to protect his future privacy.

He used to curse a lot. He’d say “I hate you. I want to die.” He’d say he wanted to kill himself. The boy, along with two of Duncan’s other children, has 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 get away when his siblings are irritating him. “Just go somewhere else and count to five,” the son said that Brown taught him. The hotel where the Duncans lived for a bit had some green space outside. When he got mad, the son would go there to decompress. When it was too cold to go out, he would count to five. It helped.

Brown has been working with Duncan's son on maintaining his composure when things don’t go his way. “I know that he has a past where he’s dealt with different things that might have shaped his psyche a little bit,” said Brown. “So, it’s kind of just methodically bringing him to a point where he can be assured of himself and confident in all situations.”

Brown enjoys picking the child up from school. It gives him a front-row seat to 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 about working with (him) is just seeing how pure he is and how genuine he is with his love that he shows to people, including me.”

The $1.1 million donation is the largest the Detroit chapter of Friends of the Children 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 home in Garden City. He’s a manager for Ford Motor Co. and provides home health care services. Things are looking a lot brighter than they once did for the youngster who is now a third-grader at a new school who loves to run, swim and color. And things look brighter for his family.

Jennifer Brookland covers child welfare for the Detroit Free Press in partnership with Report for America. Reach her at jbrookland@freepress.com.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Mackenzie Scott donates $1M to Friends of the Children Detroit chapter