September 20, 2019
Duncan Campbell at TEDxPortland
Our founder shares his story to re.imagine professional mentorship.
On April 27, 2019, our founder Duncan Campbell had the opportunity to share his story at TEDxPortland. In its 9th year, TEDxPortland's theme was re.imagine with a commitment to connecting the dots so that we all may better embrace or civic responsibilities, communities, one another – even our own selves. Together we will reimagine our future. As the closing speaker for the event, Duncan shares his childhood past and the journey he took to founding our organization over 26 years ago.
Below is a transcript of Duncan's speech:
Duncan Campbell (DC): Love you too. My mother was an alcoholic. My father was an alcoholic, and he was in prison twice. He wasn't a mean drunk. In fact, he never hit me or anything, but he was pretty sad and pathetic. We were a welfare family. I grew up in North Portland, went to Jefferson High School. I'd like to share two stories from my childhood that will help paint the picture of my childhood, which is basically, because my parents lived in bars and taverns, I was left alone most of my childhood in what a social worker would call neglect.
DC: The first story, I'm four years old. I wake up around midnight, wander through the house, going into my parents' bedroom. No one's there. And then, I go to the rest of the house, and it's totally empty. So, what do I do? I put on my pants inside out. I head down the street, make it about three blocks. There's a bakery worker out there having a cigarette. He says, "Where you going, kid?" I said, "I'm looking for my parents." Of course, he calls the police. The police come, and they know my parents because they've been to our home a few times to break up fights.
DC: They take me, and we go down to the local bar. My parents are there. I still remember this like it was yesterday: the rotten stale beer, the smell of the bar, the look of despair, even on the police officers' faces, and my parents having no idea that I was there. I was so lonely. The second story, I'm eight years old. I'm in the, my own grade school auditorium, which is now Martin Luther King, and it was going to be one of the proudest days of my life. I was all excited about being sworn in to be a Cub Scout. I'm there with all my friends. Their parents are there. We're sitting in the front row, and then, the scout leader comes over. Says, "Duncan, I can't swear you in as a Cub Scout today because your parents need to be here, and they're not." You can imagine I sat in the audience in total humiliation, and everyone else was called up on the stage and sworn in. And then, it was over. I start to run out, and it gets worse. Coming in the back door, knocking over chairs, dead-blind drunk, is my dad. "I'm here!" I mean, now, I'm embarrassed beyond imagination. I just keep on running all the way home crying. You know, and that's a lot for an eight-year-old child to handle. It was that moment that I thought, and I actually thought I knew, that I was white trash. I felt like I did not belong, my life would never amount to anything, and then, something became crystal clear to me. Even then, I knew that I didn't want another child to ever feel the way I did in that moment or to have the childhood that I did.
DC: So, let's fast forward about four pivotal experiences and people in my life that involved role models who shaped me and provided something that I'd never had in my life, something that I'd never seen or felt, hope. Four people in my life gave me hope. My first-grade teacher, Mr. Brown, who happened to be the first African-American teacher in Portland at the time, he was just amazing, encouraged me, supported me. And then, I had two coaches, my seventh-grade basketball coach and my high school varsity coach, saw something in me and gave me a spark. But, a tipping point for me, and probably the most poignant moment up until that time, was a senior counselor at Jefferson. And, he said, "Duncan, you can be more than what most people think you can be." All of these people took time to get to know me. They instilled belief in me. They saw something in me, in me and invested time in me, and they cared about me. That was all I needed. This life experience led to my idea, and that's the idea I want to share with you all today. My idea is to create and support a model and a program that will break the generational cycle of poverty, especially for children at risk.
DC: Research has shown that the single most important factor for building resiliency in children who face the highest risks is a long-term, consistent relationship with a loving, caring adult. Children can be resilient when they are supported.
DC: And, I'm going to repeat that because it's so important. Children are resilient when they are supported. So, the mission behind my idea has actually been the calling of my life. I firmly believe that I was put on earth to be, what you'll understand to be, a friend, and so, unfortunately, it was nothing like that when I was younger in my career. So, 25 years ago, I started Friends of the Children, and we've been building, learning, and changing lives now ever since. And, I believe we're just getting started, and, with your help and willingness, I believe this is an idea worth sharing and spreading. So, the more you understand about Friends and what we do, I believe we, you and I, can play a part in changing the generational cycle of poverty. And, Portland can continue to be an example to the world.
DC: A bit more background, I actually worked at the juvenile court and detention for four years, and then, after that, I became a lawyer, a CPA, and then, I became an entrepreneur. I was meant to be an entrepreneur, and later a social entrepreneur, but, when I was an entrepreneur, I built a business that was, fortunately, grew—We ran out of money seven times, and my wife went nuts. But, but it didn't bother me at all, but anyways.
DC: And then, I did further research to make sure this idea might have some viability. So, I funded and started Friends of the Children 25 years ago in my old, low-income, high-crime community right here in Portland. We hired three Friends, selected 24 children from Martin Luther King, boys in learning grade schools back then, and we were off and running. But what makes Friends so unique? I mean, you're probably how is it different from Big Brothers, Big Sisters and foster care. Well, let me elaborate. We pick the most vulnerable children in an inner-city school. We're in the middle of Harlem, for example, where there's the least amount of hope. So, imagine a child, at the end of kindergarten, already fighting or bullying other kids, or sitting in the back of the classroom with dirty clothes, isolated, or inappropriately clinging to the teacher because they're starved for affection. That's the child we want. That's the child we invest in. It's not like the first child chosen on the playground for a, to be in a game, a softball game or whatever. We actually, of the 100 kindergarten children, our number one pick is the least behaved child probably in the whole school.
DC: But, we do something else besides take the most at-risk children. We start at the beginning. We start at the end of kindergarten. Nobody does that. We make a long-term commitment of 12 1/2 years from kindergarten to high school. Friends are paid a livable wage. They're not a volunteer, and our commitment to the child is unconditional. Many programs make their continuation conditional. Ours is, we stay with the child no matter what for that 12 1/2 years, but the core of it is actually the relationship the Friend has with the child. And, we actually teach the children core assets.
DC: We work, once again, with the most vulnerable children there are in the school. We start early and commit for 12 1/2 years, and we do it no matter what. And, the Friends, Friends are paid a livable wage, but it's important to shed a little perspective on all this because, back in 1993, when I had this idea and I was a child advocate, everyone thought I was a little crazy. They actually said I was nuts. My peers and colleagues said, "You're, you're going to pay mentors and offer benefits, and you're going to commit to a child for 12 1/2 years and work with the most at-risk children there are, you can find?" Conventional thinking at that time was telling me and everyone else "spend less, get more kids in the program for a shorter period of time." And, being a child advocate for 50 years, I knew that didn't work and hadn't worked for a long time, for, especially for these children. So, I told these folks that they were nuts, that I wasn't nuts.
DC: And, yes. Yeah.
DC: It was unconventional because nothing like this had ever been done before. Yes, it was out of the box because there was no box, and I thought this is going to work because, to some extent, I was evidence of this with my own childhood and subsequent success." I had lived the life. I knew it. I knew what it was like.
DC: But, what's truly revolutionary—it's one thing to have an idea and to put it in place—are the outcomes. What I'm sharing with you today is real, and it works. If you remember nothing else about this talk is what I'm telling you is real, and it works. Eighty-three percent of our youth graduate from high school, although 80 percent of their parents did not complete high school. Ninety-three percent avoid the juvenile justice system, although 50 percent of their parents had been incarcerated. Ninety-eight percent avoid early parenting, although 85 percent of them were born to a single parent.
DC: Something even more profound, I mean, I was satisfied with those outcomes, but the Harvard Business School Association of Oregon actually did an economic study of the Friends model and showed that for every dollar we spent and invested in Friends saved the community $7.00 out into the future, the opposite of what everybody was saying.
DC: Helping one child saves the community almost $1 million for each child.
DC: That, that is taxpayer money. That is your money. I mean, I've had people come to me and be emotionally touched just by the nature of the work and say I'm with you, but I've had some curmudgeons come in and say, "My wife drug me here, but once I heard the numbers, you got me cold."
DC: And, the way it works is you're basically avoiding all those costs of, of the judicial system, incarceration, social services, et cetera. It all adds up, but it's avoidable and preventable. Time and professional mentorship is a bankable solution that delivers hope. Positioning the right relationship to the right time, at the right time to these children with the greatest need, that's where it works. That is the answer. This breaks the cycle, and we're all about real outcomes. And if you can't tell, I love outcomes. We were once three Friends with 24 children in my old neighborhood. We are now 50 Friends and over 500 children in the Portland metro area.
DC: Even better, we've now grown 17 chapters throughout the country, including England, all around the country, and thousands of children are now in our network. And, in addition, we now have a goal to grow to 25 cities by 2025.
DC: While we're all about outcomes, we do tell stories. The data and outcomes for, once again, to me, are everything. But, in closing, I would like to share a letter that I received from a young person named Nuni [phonetic] [00:16:41]—that's not her real name—who's now 23 years old, who as a child was first abandoned by her father, then soon abandoned by her mother. And then, she went to live with her aunt, where she was abused. She was introduced to our program. So, now, after almost 12 years with her Friend, she wrote me this note, and these are excerpts from that. I'm going to read it.
DC: Dear Duncan, given the difficult times of my early childhood, my Friend has given me so much for which I am grateful and appreciative. For the first time, someone cared about me. For the first time, someone believed that I had value. For the first time, someone validated my thoughts and feelings, and that person gave me the skills to form healthy relationships with others. Without my Friend's steady presence and understanding, I would not have come this far and had the strength to continue. My Friend was always there beside me to cry, laugh, and feel for me when I no longer had the courage to do so.
DC: Now, I have that courage to stand up for what I believe in, to find my voice, to pick myself up and continue living. She has shown that, no matter how hard life might be and seem, there are people who care for me. You are a blessing, and, for that, I am offering you this piece of my heart, so you will see how thankful I am.
DC: So, remember, children can be resilient, and we can break the generational cycle of poverty together. Help us spread this idea. Together, we can make a difference and change children's lives forever. Thank you very much.