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One person, over time, can turn a life around

Duncan Campbell –

By Gail Dana
Special To The Business Journal

When businessman Duncan Campbell formed the Friends of the Children in 1993 he wanted to help Portland’s least likely to succeed children not just survive but excel.

His unique approach to helping those kids began with hiring stable “friends” to be there for them from first grade through high school.

He kept each child’s friend financially stable by paying him or her solid wages with benefits including vacation time. Then he blanketed the program with a $1.5 million endowment.

Duncan CampbellDuncan Campbell’s program, initiated with three friends serving 24 children has, in seven years, exceeded his expectations.

“I wanted to have an impact on the King community,” said Campbell, founder and executive director of Friends, who grew up in Northeast Portland’s King neighborhood.

His program has done that and more! Now it’s crossing the nation.

The Northwest Regional Educational Lab in Portland and Public/Private Ventures in Philadelphia evaluated the Portland Friends organization and found that the children’s school attendance rose 20 percent, behavioral referrals dove 20 percent and the children have contributed 840 hours of community service.

Duncan Campbell notes that children who were sullen have grown confident and friendly when they were befriended, and children who displayed little hope now explode with dreams.

Here’s how it works: Each of the friends commits to befriending eight children for 12 years. Each friend then meets with the children for at least four hours every week. During that time they discuss their lives, motivate them to do their homework and provide unconditional love.

“A friend is someone they’re comfortable with,” said Joseph Malone, principal of Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. “The friend is there to help them not just with their homework but to do things with them after school. The kids realize, `This is my friend who wants me to do well and is cheering for me to do well.’ The entire family gets more involved with school. It’s been a win-win situation.”

The Portland Friends program now employs 30 friends supporting 220 children. The Friends organization now exists in Klamath Falls, Seattle, Chester, Penn., Sisters, and Washington, D.C. Five other states are now planning to open Friends chapters.

“Our goal is to open 10 programs in the next two years, said Doug Stamm, executive director.

“My goal,” added Duncan Campbell, “is to make sure every child who needs a friend has one. I want to change how society sees these children. I want to have a community that includes teachers, firemen–and friends.”

Duncan Campbell knows the anguish of being friendless. The child of alcoholics, Duncan Campbell says he was regularly left in the family vehicle at night outside taverns his parents frequented. Downwardly mobile, the Campbell home was a house, then a duplex, then an apartment, then a small room.

“I had people touch [my life] then,” Duncan Campbell recalled, “parents, teachers, coaches. But there was no one who came even close to being a friend.”

Duncan Campbell might have been chosen the child least likely to succeed had he not chosen a separate destiny. He focused on his studies and worked a collection of after-school jobs, pushing his way toward freedom through academic achievement.

He graduated from Jefferson High School, then Oregon State University, then the University of Oregon law school. Campbell interrupted his law school education to work stints in the juvenile justice system.

There he became frustrated by the system’s failure to help youth. Instead of entering law, Campbell later joined the private sector, forming a timber investment corporation.

“I created a product there was no market for,” he said. “Then the market came to me.”

Within a few years Duncan Campbell was a millionaire. A millionaire with a memory.

“I promised myself if I ever made it, I’d go back and help kids like me,” Duncan Campbell said.

It took a year to develop the Friends program. That program evolved from the lessons Campbell had learned from his childhood, child development research, experience with the juvenile justice system and business acumen.

“The organization’s structure has all the qualities of a successful business corporation,” Campbell said.

That includes investors. The organization is now supported by individuals, foundations and corporations as well as state and county funds. Jeld-Wen Corp. in Klamath Falls recently earmarked $750,000 for the Friends program in Klamath County. While each child costs the program $6,500 a year, Campbell notes the savings in later intervention costs cannot be estimated but probably far exceeds this early investment.

The program, however, only incidentally assists in saving the social service system dollars. “The golden rule of Friends,” said Campbell, “is to be with the children.”

Too often the system simply processes children. This organization succeeds by unconditionally loving them, he said.

“I knew if I wanted to save just one child, I had to start Friends,” Campbell said.


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