Our Stories

A Latina Friend to Children: Young woman's Hispanic heritage defines her career

Nichole PalmateerSometimes fate hands you a gift so precious that you want to spend your life giving back. That's how it is for Nicole Palmateer, director of development for Friends of the Children, a unique mentoring program based in Portland, Ore., that helps at-risk children, many of them Hispanic.

Twenty-seven years ago, Nicole Palmateer was born Maria Pia Lopez in a ghetto in Quito, Ecuador, to a young mother too poor and too desperate to keep her. Nicole's birth mother was only 14 and a victim of domestic violence. At the tender age of nine months, Nicole was adopted by a Caucasian family and brought to live in Oregon. It was a twist of fate, this young Latina believes, that saved her life.

"As a baby in South America, I was very ill," she explains. "If I hadn't been adopted, I probably wouldn't have lived. I know that the space I occupy on the planet is a gift to me."

Being adopted may have saved her life, but Nicole says it was another fateful happenstance--attending Willamette University in Salem, Ore.--that gave her pride in being Hispanic and the confidence to do something with that pride. Before coming to the liberal arts university, Nicole had little opportunity to appreciate her uniqueness or her Hispanic culture because she was raised by a white family in the small town of Elkton, Ore.. The town had no other Hispanics and offered few opportunities to explore Latino culture.

"I always felt different," she says. "Elkton doesn't have a large population of color. In my high school of 70, there were two people of color--myself and an Asian friend of mine. It made me aware that I was different, that I looked different from other people."

Because of her family's long history in the tiny ranching town, Nicole said the discrimination she faced there was subtle rather than blatant. "People didn't call me names to my face," she says. "But some of them certainly had different expectations about me than if I'd been white. Because I'm Latina, at first, they assumed I was lazy or stupid."

Nicole proved she was neither. At Elkton High School, she was an honor student, an athlete and a cheerleader. She starred in theater productions and worked on both the school paper and the yearbook. She graduated second in her class. But she didn't have a sense of her ethnic culture.

It was at Willamette University that Nicole says she had the opportunity to explore being Latina. Currently, students of color make up 23 percent of the school's current incoming freshmen class; five percent of them are Hispanic.

"One of the first classes I took at Willamette was taught by Patricia Varas who is from Ecuador," she says. "She helped me learn about Ecuador and how it relates to the United States. I learned a lot about my culture. At Willamette, people encouraged me to explore my Latina heritage through music and dance and to get politically involved. I came away being proud of my background and valuing the unique perspective it gives me."

It wasn't just exposure to Hispanic studies or to other Latino students at the school that made Nicole choose to work with at-risk children. Nicole's adopted family, especially her grandparents, instilled a strong sense of helping others and giving back. Willamette University's philosophy, "not unto ourselves alone are we born," also helped Nicole look outside herself and develop empathy and a sense of responsibility for others. "You must give to get," she says. "You must give to the world, to your job, to whatever you're invested in to earn a reward. Willamette challenged me to look at how I can be part of the solution; how I can be part of the tapestry of change," she says.

That inspiration has lead her to Friends of the Children, a nationally acclaimed mentoring program 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 nationally. In Oregon, 8 percent of the program's children are Latino; another six percent are multi-racial, including part Latino. The program is funded by a variety of sources, including individuals, businesses, foundations and government contracts.

At Friends of the Children, it's Nicole's job to raise money for the Oregon Initiative, a new program that's designed to bring mentors to children in smaller, more rural communities. The Oregon Initiative is currently operating in Eugene, Salem and Klamath Falls. Soon, there will be Friend mentors available in Coos Bay, Bend, Madras and other small communities.

"Being at Friends has taught me what being at-risk truly means," Nicole says. "Because of my adoptive family, I grew up with two parents who love me and who met all my needs. I got to ride horses and go to summer camp. At Friends, I've seen children who not only don't have money, but who have no safety or stability. I've seen children who go hungry because their parents are too drunk to feed them."

Friends of the Children is making a difference, says Nicole, one child at a time. "Our kids are doing amazing things," she says. "They're learning to play the piano. They're trying sushi for the first time. One child in Eugene who is petrified of water is learning to swim with her Friend. Another child who has been physically and mentally abused by his parents has essentially been raised by his Friend. He's now in high school and he's doing well, much better than anyone ever thought he would."

It's that kind of success that keeps Nicole knocking on doors and making phone calls asking for support. "Asking people for money can be a hard job," she admits. "What keeps me coming back, what gets me up in the morning is remembering that what I do today impacts these kids. Everything I do makes it possible for one more child to have a Friend. And that's a real gift."

For more information about Friends of the Children visit www.friendsofthechildren.com or call (503) 281-6633.