Duncan Campbell: A Friend of Children
Duncan Campbell’s parents never helped him with homework or watched him play sports growing up.
He remembers once when the police helped him search for his parents in the middle of the night — and finding them drunk at a bar.
“Both of my parents were alcoholics,” says Campbell, 64. “We were a welfare family, and my dad was in prison twice. Luckily, I was able to change those circumstances in my own life.”
Campbell says teachers and coaches mentored him and that kept him off the streets. He promised himself that if he ever became financially able, he would devote himself to helping kids from troubled families.
“The trauma of my childhood motivated me to do everything I could so I wouldn’t end up like my parents,” Campell says. “I was fortunate. A lot of people aren’t able to rise above those circumstances.”
In 1993, Campbell sold his multimillion dollar timber investment business and started Friends of the Children, a nonprofit that pairs mentors with children in need.
Campbell focuses on children just as they’re finishing kindergarten. Most of the kids he works with have been neglected, abused; about 40 percent of them are in foster care.
He supervises paid mentors, who spend at least 16 hours a month with about eight different kids, doing such things as homework, arts and crafts, and outdoor activities. Each child stays connected with a mentor until he finishes high school. Campbell says the pay isn’t great and it requires at least a three to four year commitment, but most mentors stay with the program for nearly eight years.
“It’s a results-oriented program,” Campbell says. “Other people talk about making change or give you some mumbo jumbo, but we are making real change. Eighty percent of our kids have graduated high school, 50 percent go on for further education, 92 percent have stayed out of the criminal justice system and 96 percent have not become early parents.”
Campbell won one of the $50,000 Purpose Prize awards in 2009. He says the award is great, because most other funding goes to programs aimed at teens between the ages of 13 and 18. But as he sees it, by that time it’s too late. “You really need to reach kids when they’re very young,” he says.
Before starting Friends of the Children, Campbell did extensive research to verify his theory that early intervention is what keeps kids out of the criminal justice system. The program started with three mentors and 24 children, but it now employs 82 mentors who work with more than 700 children in six cities, including Portland, Seattle, Boston, New York and Cincinnati.
“Change is possible,” Campbell says. “If anything, people should realize how rapidly things are changing. You can always make positive change. Friends never existed before, but now it does and we’ve been able to change a lot of lives.”
Latisha R. Gray is a freelance Web producer and writer based in Washington, D.C.