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Salem Gets Family Friends: Willamette grad makes a difference for at-risk kids

Laura HildebrandtSometimes you just need a Friend. That's especially true for children raised on violence, neglect and poverty. For a handful of at-risk kids at Richmond Elementary, Salem residents Mary and Laura Hildebrandt offer an innovative program called Friends of the Children. This unique mother-daughter team may just be the lifeline these Salem kids need.

Mary Hildebrandt, a 2002 graduate of Willamette University, is a "Friend," a paid adult who provides support and encouragement to at-risk children from the first through the 12th grade. The one-on-one relationship with a supportive adult is what makes the nationally acclaimed 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 Friends and currently serves more than 300 children in Oregon and 600 children nationally. Last year, the program received state funding to launch the Oregon Initiative, a pilot program to bring Friends of the Children into more rural communities like Salem and Eugene. In September, Mary Hildebrandt was hired to expand Salem's program at Richmond Elementary. It didn't take Mary long to convince her mom, Laura, to come onboard as Salem's first volunteer Friend.

"I've got five second-grade girls and one first-grade girl," says Mary, pushing aside a box full of files in her bright yellow Lancer. Two more first-graders will be selected to fill her caseload. The backseat of Mary's car is stuffed with a variety of toys and games and a blue and green quilt with cartoon characters on it. Because the Friends in the Oregon Initiative are supervised from Portland, Mary and her male counterpart, Steve Gwynn, don't have an official Salem office. Instead, Mary's car is her portable office. She keeps in touch with the Portland office and other Friends via a cell phone, email and weekly meetings.

All of Mary's youngsters come from Richmond Elementary, a school that has many low-income, Spanish-speaking students. Two years ago, when Friends of the Children wanted to bring the Oregon Initiative to Salem, Friends staffer Melissa Rose, another Willamette University alumna, called Laura Hildebrandt for recommendations about elementary schools to serve. For Laura, Richmond Elementary was a natural choice.

"Richmond Elementary is like home to us," says Laura, who works as the accounting office manager at the University. "I have lived in that neighborhood since I was three. I went to Richmond Elementary and so did my girls. I was active in the school's Parent's Club and with the teachers and principal there. My whole family still lives in the neighborhood. The fact that it's a low-income, bi-lingual school make it a great choice for Friends."

It's 3:15 at Salem's Richmond Elementary. Kids tumble out of the school, bursting with energy. Boys run down the sidewalk, shouting, jostling one another. Girls whisper and giggle as they move in tight knots down the leaf-strewn streets that surround the school. Mary is there to pick up Carmella, a dark-eyed second grader with a shy grin. Most days, Mary works for four or five hours with the kids in class. After school, she'll pick up one child for a two-hour outing to the library, the park or other adventure.

Today, Steve Gwynn, Salem's original Friend, waits on the sidewalk with Mary. Charlie, one of the eight boys he mentors, charges up and pretends to sock Steve in the stomach. The man doubles over then grabs Charlie in a roughhouse hug. "Hey, buddy, how was school?"

The boy, dressed in wrinkled pants, a T-shirt and red high-topped tennis shoes with holes in the toes, wriggles out from the man's grasp and grins impishly.

Carmella skips down the sidewalk, her latte-colored face lighting up when she sees Mary. She's wearing a stripped knit top, a denim skirt and shiny patent leather knee boots. Her ears sport gold loop earrings. Her smile shows off two new scalloped-edged adult teeth. "Hi Mary," the girl whispers, slipping her hand into Mary's.

After carefully buckling Carmella into the backseat of the Lancer, Mary caravans to the Gilbert House Children's Museum, a collection of colorfully painted Victorians filled with kid-pleasing toys and activities. Since the Gilbert House donated passes to the Oregon Initiative, the Museum has become a favorite destination.

Mary, Steve, Charlie and Carmella are met by Steve and Tomas from the Eugene program. Getting together with other Oregon Initiative Friends gives the staffers much-needed support and allows the kids to interact. Tomas and Charlie immediately begin a game of King of the Mountain, running through the giant maze of stairs and slides in the Museum's backyard. The two Steves get into the act, chasing the boys, making monster noises, challenging their young charges to a game of hide and seek.

Carmella half-heartedly chases after the boys, but is soon back at Mary's side. She's more content holding Mary's hand, picking yellow leaves off a maple tree, exploring the dinosaur-shaped sandbox or plunking out a tune on the wooden xylophone.

Amidst squeals of kid laughter come the voices of the Friends. "Good job." "Thanks for your help." "Try again." "Be careful there. Take your time." It's a constant job of guiding, gently correcting, modeling behavior. Often, the progress is agonizingly slow. "You can't expect success right away," says Mary. "Progress, like the girls saying thank you or using a napkin while they eat, comes in baby steps."

Good hygiene is also something Mary tries to instill. One of her girls was recently out of school for more than a month because of head lice and ringworm. "She's not being taken care of properly," Mary says. "She's always dirty. Her hair is greasy and matted. The mother drinks and can hardly take care of herself let alone her daughter." When the child wanted her Friend to paint her grimy fingernails, Mary gently suggested soaking the child's hands first. "You have to find creative ways to teach things that aren't valued by the family."

Two hours pass quickly. Mary drops Carmella off, takes a short break and picks up Rosa, another second grader. Like most days, this one won't end for Mary until after 8 p.m. She works five days a week, including Saturdays. Tonight, Rosa's mother wants Mary to take Rosa's 12-year-old sister along too. Because Friends of the Children believes in early intervention, children must start the program in first grade. Too often, older siblings need support too. That's where Laura Hildebrandt, Salem's first volunteer Friend, comes in.

"I'm like a grandmother Friend," says Laura, laughing lightly. She has years of experience working as a volunteer in the classroom and with the Outdoor School. "I work five to 10 hours a month with the older siblings. I might help them with homework, give them someone to talk with, maybe take them out to dinner. I give them someone else they can turn to."

Already a success in Portland, the volunteer Friend program is a first for Salem and for the Oregon Initiative and one that Laura thinks can fill a big role. "In families, the younger ones always look to the older ones," she says. "If these older children have a little structure and a little mentoring, it might strengthen the whole family situation."

The Hildebrandt family's connection to Salem's Friends of the Children isn't likely to end soon. Laura's husband, Mark, is "unofficial grandpa Friend" when the girls come to visit the Hildebrandt's 20-acre farm. Not to be left out, youngest daughter Emily, currently a junior at Willamette University, says she wants to become a Friend of the Children when she graduates.

For Mary Hildebrandt, being a Friend is something she could do for the rest of her life. "In some small way, maybe I can help break the cycle of poverty for these kids," she says. "I feel truly blessed that I'm paid to do this."

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.