March 20, 2020

Friends of the Children Opening Utah Chapter, Executive Director Announced

Salt Lake resident Sandi Pershing tapped to lead the organization.

SALT LAKE CITY Friends of the Children, a national nonprofit that pairs children who face multiple systemic obstacles with a paid, professional mentor called a Friend for 12+ years, announced today that they are launching a Friends of the Children–Utah chapter and have named Salt Lake City resident Sandi Pershing as the executive director.

“Every child in the Salt Lake Valley deserves the opportunity to dream big and reach their goals, but too many children face a lot of adversity that can seem impossible to overcome,” said Pershing, Friends – Utah Executive Director. “I am really looking forward to this incredible opportunity and know that our Utah youth and families who are experiencing incredible challenges – like neglect, abuse and intergenerational poverty - can thrive with the support of a Friend.”

Friends—Utah will initially begin selecting children in the greater Salt Lake Valley. Each child selected is paired with a Friend whose full-time job is to spend four hours a week with each child at school, at home and in the community. Friends will support youth—and by extension, their families—for 12+ years, building trusting relationships through a trauma-informed lens that provides critical social, emotional and academic support.

“Along with our partners, we are honored to support Friends of the Children as it opens the much-anticipated Utah chapter,” said Jennifer Danielson, senior vice president, Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Utah. “Friends has positively impacted outcomes for children and their parents in cities across the country. We are excited to have this successful organization join the important work in Utah's communities to help transform the lives of the most vulnerable children."

The organization, which was founded in Portland, Ore., by entrepreneur Duncan Campbell more than 25 years ago, specializes in serving youth who have been impacted by economic instability, foster care, substance abuse, parental incarceration, and other traumatic events that create instability. In recent years, the organization has expanded to support parents through an innovative Two-Generation (2Gen) model aimed at supporting families in achieving overall health and well-being.

Utah is one of the only – if not the only – states in the nation to have passed a law committing to end intergenerational poverty. Among families experiencing intergenerational poverty, the rate of contact with the child welfare system is particularly high. In 2018, 21 percent of children experiencing intergenerational poverty were victims of a substantiated case of abuse or neglect, a significantly higher rate than the statewide average of 1.2 percent. The number of children at risk of, and experiencing foster care is also increasing in Utah. On any given day in the Salt Lake Valley, an estimated 140 children ages 4 to 6 are in foster care. Parental substance abuse is now the leading reason for a child's placement in foster care. Finally, trauma and mental health issues for parents and children are a major cause for concern, with teen suicide rates in Utah among the highest in the nation.

Research funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation showed that the presence of a Friend in a child’s life benefits the entire family. Another recent CDC report called out the practice of mentoring as a promising strategy for preventing and lessening the harm from childhood trauma. A third-party evaluation of Friends of the Children program graduates showed that:

  • 92% of graduates go on to enroll in post-secondary education, serve our country or enter the workforce
  • 83% of youth obtain a high school diploma or GED
  • 93% remain free from juvenile justice system involvement
  • 98% wait to parent until after their teen years

Key Utah State, Salt Lake county and city-level leaders who are working to improve economic opportunity and child well-being for families facing multiple systemic obstacles are supportive of bringing our model to Utah. Those leaders have identified children and families who are experiencing intergenerational poverty and who are at the highest risk of neglect and abuse as a top priority for Friends-Utah. To date, more than $1.65 million in seed capital has been raised to launch the chapter, including investments from foundations, corporations and individuals.

"We are incredibly grateful to local philanthropic and business leaders for coming together and recognizing that Utah children who have experienced a lot of trauma need more support,” said Erinn Kelley-Siel, Chief Officer of Expansion and Policy at Friends of the Children. “Our partners made this chapter possible because of their commitment to supporting children and families to achieve health and well-being. We are confident Sandi is the right choice to launch and lead the chapter, growing its impact for Utahans now and in the future.”

Prior to being selected as Friends–Utah’s executive director, Pershing worked as the vice president of University Relations for the National College Advising Corps and was the assistant vice president for Engagement and dean of Continuing Education at the University of Utah. In these roles, Sandi and her teams worked with community partners across the state of Utah and the U.S. to build and support programs, partnerships, and pipelines to and through higher education for first-generation, low-income and underrepresented students.

In addition to the new Utah chapter, Friends of the Children is in 22 other locations across the U.S., with one location in Cornwall, U.K. The organization has seen tremendous growth, launching 17 new locations in just seven years. Friends–Utah is in the process of building a local Board of Directors.