Kids growing up in the foster care system often lack a consistent adult presence through their formidable years – so a regional nonprofit provides them mentors from kindergarten through graduation.
With a $1.1 million grant from billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott and a desire to make a lasting impact in the lives of some of the area’s most vulnerable kids, Friends of the Children – Tampa Bay (FCTB) is bringing its long-term mentoring model to Lealman Elementary School.
The nearly nine-year-old nonprofit’s leadership announced the innovative partnership, the first of its kind in Pinellas County, Jan. 23. Lealman is an underserved, unincorporated community just north of St. Petersburg.
Rick McClintock, executive director of Tampa-based FCTB, said the organization wanted to establish a physical presence in the St. Petersburg area to increase its impact and better embody the “Tampa Bay” moniker. Lori Matway, associate superintendent for Pinellas County Schools (PCS), recommended Lealman Elementary because it has a great need that is oft-overlooked, he said.
“Lots of kids living in hotels and foster care,” explained McClintock. “Lots of single-parent homes. Lots of kids with a lot of challenges in their lives, but a school that doesn’t have a lot of attention layered on it like some other schools in Pinellas County.”
FCTB’s “Power of One” model is unique. It connects highly trained, paid professional mentors – or Friends – with kids in or at risk of entering the foster system. They then stay with the same children for 12.5 years, regardless of any challenges that may arise.
According to its website, 95% of youth with Friends exit foster care, and 98% advance to the next grade level. In addition, 93% remain out of the juvenile justice system, and 98% avoid becoming teen parents.
The organization serves Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas Counties. McClintock noted it mentored foster students in St. Pete but never formed a partnership with a specific school in the area. A similar initiative with Foster Elementary School in Tampa began in 2020.
McClintock plans to establish a 16-student cohort at Lealman Elementary, which he believes will make a difference in those kids’ lives and bolster local funding and relationships. “Really plant a flag, so to speak,” he added.
He said FCTB would also include its partner nonprofits that focus on mental wellness, food insecurity, substance abuse and legal issues. While those are all critical aspects to improving the lives of kids in the foster system, McClintock expressed that the overarching goal is to provide a reliable adult presence.
“The nature of the kids we nurture is such that there’s not always a stable home life,” he said. “Certainly, coming from the foster care system, there may be a revolving door of adults in their life.”
McClintock noted that their address, friends, home and school environments are continuously changing, and Friends can provide consistency. He said research proves that having a stable adult presence is the most critical factor for overcoming those circumstances.
“We’re able to be that continuity, if you will, amidst a lot of chaos,” McClintock said.
He relayed that many of FCTB’s children were adopted, and not a single parent has said the kids no longer needed their Friend. Five of the organization’s six original mentors still serve as Friends nearly nine years later (“life happens,” McClintock said).
He said that the retention rate is unique among case management and explained the commitment needed is a critical factor in the hiring process. Many Friends previously worked with other agencies, but McClintock said they found that extensive caseloads prevented them from making a genuine difference.
The Tampa Bay affiliate is one of 29 national FCTB chapters, and he said the children it serves receive an average of 2.5 mentors over the 12-year program. He added that the average Friend stays with the organization for seven years.
McClintock said he is looking to hire new mentors for the Lealman partnership. He noted that candidates undergo an extensive vetting and five-stage interview process, and the program’s start date hinges on finding the right people.
He hopes to make the hires by March or April and bring children on board by April or May. McClintock relayed that he was “very candid” with the Lealman staff when discussing a timeline.
“We’re not just going to hire schmucks to take care of the kids – we’ve got a good process,” he said. “And then we go to an observation process where we’re in the classroom looking at kids and working with teachers to identify those kids who will most benefit from our program.”
For more information on Friends of the Children Tampa Bay, visit the website here.
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