FARGO — When the young girl first met her mentor, Kristy Tran, she wasn’t interested in conversation or doing anything unfamiliar.

Now, the 7-year-old who has autism chats with ease about her favorite toys and activities, while she puts a puzzle together in rapid-fire fashion at the Fargo Public Library main branch downtown.

“Just finding those quirks and stuff that she likes, she will just bloom and talk your ear off,” said Tran, who is 26.

The two are part of Friends of the Children, a nonprofit in Fargo that mentors at-risk children.

The Fargo-Moorhead chapter got its start in late 2019, just before COVID-19 hit.

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Executive Director John Fisher said what makes the organization unique is its mentorship commitment all the way through the child’s high school graduation, and that it does so with paid professional mentors, rather than volunteers.

Fisher said the approach is proven to be most successful for these children, who often have more negative than positive forces in their lives.

Despite barriers of the pandemic, the organization was able to hire four professional mentors or “Friends” and enroll 32 children, and managed to continue face-to-face outings or interactions throughout the shutdown.

It has 42 more children on a waiting list, Fisher said. He said he hopes to add two more mentors and 16 more children in the coming year.

“We want to continue that growth strategy. We would love to exceed it,” he said.

Risk vs. protective factors

The national Friends of the Children organization got its start 26 years ago by Duncan Campbell, a philanthropist in Portland, Ore.

He’d heard about a study touting interventions in a child’s life that could break the cycle of intergenerational poverty, but it had to start young.

About five years ago, the national organization began an aggressive expansion project, and two years ago, the Fargo-Moorhead chapter came online.

Fisher said they work with local social service agencies, public schools and other like-minded nonprofits to identify children who could be helped.

The goal is to find kids, ages 4 through 6, who have the highest number of risk factors and the least number of protective factors in their lives.

Risk factors include homelessness, being in foster care, or having a single parent, a teenage parent or a parent who is incarcerated.

“If there's not some intervention in a substantive way, we know where this story is likely going to go,” Fisher said.

Protective factors could be having two parents at home, or a financial picture above the poverty line, he said.

While the focus is on the child, mentors work with parents or caregivers to schedule outings. Each child gets four hours a week with a mentor, 52 weeks a year, for 12 years, Fisher said.

“We are in that child's life for their entire childhood,” he said.

A girl identified as "B" colors a picture recently at the Fargo Public Library in downtown Fargo. The Friends of the Children nonprofit, which she is involved with, does not identify participating children by name. Chris Flynn / The Forum
A girl identified as "B" colors a picture recently at the Fargo Public Library in downtown Fargo. The Friends of the Children nonprofit, which she is involved with, does not identify participating children by name. Chris Flynn / The Forum

'Best job ever'

Experiencing trauma, especially as a child, can have lifelong consequences.

“For these little heads and these little hearts, it starts to build up calluses that have reverberations for the rest of their life,” Fisher said.

Because of that, Friends of the Children seeks mentors who are committed, caring and have the ability to see the world through a trauma-informed lens.

Since there is no fee to participating children, and the mentors are paid, the nonprofit relies heavily on fundraising.

“We are looking for organizations and individuals that have a heart for the kind of work that we're doing,” he said.

John Fisher is executive director of the Fargo-Moorhead chapter of Friends of the Children, a nonprofit that  hires paid professional mentors to work with at-risk children. Chris Flynn / The Forum
John Fisher is executive director of the Fargo-Moorhead chapter of Friends of the Children, a nonprofit that hires paid professional mentors to work with at-risk children. Chris Flynn / The Forum

It may turn out to be money well-spent.

Fisher said an independent audit of the national organization’s finances found that for every dollar invested in Friends of the Children, $7 comes back to the community in the form of reduced costs and burdens on supportive systems.

For Tran, it’s all about the improvements she sees.

While she and each of the eight girls she works with might go to a park, the library or the mall, they’re always working on skills to make them smarter, more confident, aware and self-sufficient.

“If you really like working with kids, this is really the best job ever,” Tran said.