Native Hawaiian applies her culture and her heart to an innovative program for at-risk kids.
She calls them "my girls"--five second graders and three high school children who come from homes filled with poverty, violence and neglect. As part of an innovative mentoring program called Friends of the Children, native Hawaiian and former Honolulu resident, Jennifer "Jenn" Madrazo Riordan is friend, mentor, disciplinarian, role model and personal angel to at-risk kids.
A 1999 graduate of Willamette University, Riordan credits the school for waking her to the possibilities in community service. Willamette's motto, "Not unto ourselves alone are we born," stresses service to others. "I always knew I wanted to work with children," says the sociology major. "Willamette taught me to use my education and affect the lives of those around me. It gave me a broad understanding of what I could do in social services and allowed me to experiment so I could figure out where I wanted to go."
That path lead her to Friends of the Children, a nationally acclaimed mentoring program based in Portland, Ore., that assigns at-risk children a Friend, a paid adult, who provides support and encouragement from the first through the 12th grade. This one-on-one relationship with a supportive adult is what makes the program successful. Founded in 1993 by Portland millionaire businessman, Duncan Campbell, himself a victim of neglect from alcoholic parents, Friends of the Children employs 85 mentors and currently serves more than 600 children across the country. The program is funded by a variety of sources, including individuals, businesses, foundations, and government contracts.
Jenn pulls in front of a faded two-story Victorian in Northeast Portland. The white paint has long since surrendered to a peeling gray. She walks through a gate that hangs crazily off the sagging picket fence that encloses a threadbare lawn and a few neglected rose bushes. The sound of rap music booms from a low-slung Chevy. Cars sit on cement blocks in front of bungalows with tired porches. A couple of young boys shoot a basketball into a makeshift hoop on a telephone pole. They wear the colors of a local gang. At the corner, one African American man hands a wad of bills to another in an obvious drug transaction. Across the street, a group of older men drink from a paper bag. Jenn raps on the scuffed wooden door. She's there to pick up Amy, an energetic seven-year old who she's been "Friending" for the past year. In addition to working with these children in the classroom, Jenn takes her girls out several times a week. Sometimes they go to a park or to the library to play on the computers. Other days it's bowling or baking something at Jenn's place. She uses fun activities as rewards for getting schoolwork done.
The door opens a crack and a toddler in a sagging diaper peaks around the door. "Hey Jerome, is Amy here?" He grins and jams a dirty thumb in his mouth and scuttles away.
"Amy ain't here," a woman's voice comes from the back of the room. Jenn gingerly steps through the door.
"She knew I was coming Mrs. Brown. Where is she?" Jenn asks, struggling to keep her voice even. This has happened before. Unlike most of the mothers who welcome Jenn's help with their children, Mrs. Brown seems to resent Jenn's involvement with her daughter. If the mother continues to resist Jenn's efforts, another child may have to take Amy's place in Friends.
"How should I know?" Mrs. Brown replies. She sits in a well-worn over-stuffed chair puffing on a cigarette. Next to her is an open bottle of beer. It's not Mrs. Brown's first drink of the day.
"I'll just wait," Jenn says easing herself onto a faded green chenille couch. Mrs. Brown glares at her and takes a swig from the bottle.
Fortunately, the wait isn't long. Amy, breathless and flashing a gap-toothed smile, bounds through the door. "Jenn!" she shouts and throws her arms around her Friend.
"Did you get your homework done?" Jenn asks the squirming child.
"Yep, I went to the library by myself after school," Amy says proudly brandishing a few rumpled sheets of paper.
Jenn scans the work. "This looks great, Amy," she says smiling. "How about the park?" The child wiggles with delight.
Families usually welcome Riordan. "Most of my families are very grateful to have me in their children's lives," she explains. "At first, it's hard for them because I come into their homes and see things others don't. But most of them have a lot of kids and it's great to have a little help. My families realize that I'm there to help them, not to make their life harder, to judge them or to take their place as a parent."
Riordan finds being native Hawaiian opens doors with her mostly African American families. "Being Hawaiian makes my families more welcoming of me," she says. "Some of my white co-workers have a hard time gaining trust and getting their foot in the door. For me, it's not that way. Being Hawaiian also helps my girls understand that there are other cultures besides black and white. One of my girls has actually started using Hawaiian words."
While she loves her work in Portland, Riordan misses the Islands. Her dream is to bring the Friends program, which currently has programs in a dozen cities, to Hawaii. "I'm going to be the first Friend of Children in Hawaii," she insists.
Being a Friend of the Children mentor often requires that Riordan use judgment and discretion. Unlike teachers or social workers, Friends are not required to report suspected neglect or child abuse. Filing a report with police or social services almost guarantees the family will deny her access to the child. To fail to report might expose the child to serious harm. Poverty often clouds the question of neglect. One of Jenn's families, for example, had its electricity shut off for two weeks for non-payment. "There were no lights or heat," she recalls. "Children were running around in urine-stained clothes. These kids were not being taken care of the way they should have been. When the electricity returned, things got a lot better. I didn't report it, but if the situation had continued, I would have."
Another time, one of her younger girls showed up with a black eye. The child said her mother had "whupped" her for picking at the turkey during Thanksgiving. Currently, Riordan is dealing with a potential child abuse situation. A relative's recent release from prison has filled the house with strange men who make her worry for the safety of her young charge. She's trying to teach the youngster how not to become a victim. "I'm talking with her about good touch and bad touch, trying to keep her safe," she says. "I want her to know that I'm a safe person to come to if anything ever happens."
Friends of the Children's commitment to each child is 10 years. The first group of mentored children will graduate from high school this year. While some Friend staffers have been with the program for as long as eight years, most stay with the program three to five years. If a mentor moves on, the children are assigned a new Friend. Riordan, who works as a Friend full-time, including every Saturday, says she could do this job for the rest of her life. "It's not often you can say you have the perfect job, but I do," she says smiling broadly.
Despite having worked with her girls for only about a year, Riordan sees positive changes. A few weeks ago, one of her 15-year-olds who only recently expressed a desire to have a baby, asked, "How old should you be when you have a baby?" Riordan and the teen had a long talk about college, jobs and money. A few days ago, the girl announced she was going to wait until she was 25 for her first baby. Riordan's eyes shine as she tells the story. "Seeing that they've made up their own minds or changed their behavior because of what you talked about is powerful," she says. "We're making a difference."
The names of the children and their families have been changed to protect their privacy.
For more information, visit www.friendsofthechildren.com or call (503) 281-6633.