Making a Difference
It’s Rhode Island’s oldest child welfare organization and one that has been a pioneer for much of the past 180 years. Children’s Friend, founded in 1834, serves the state’s most vulnerable children and their families. And while last month’s annual Spirit of Giving Holiday Drive drew support from hundreds of individuals and companies, Jim Hummel shows us some of the dozens of programs Children’s Friend runs the rest of the year.
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I’m Jim Hummel and this month’s Rhode Island Spotlight profiles the state’s oldest child welfare organization. For 180 years Children’s Friend has been serving the state’s most vulnerable children - and their families. Our Spotlight this month is sponsored by Panera Bread and its parent company the Howley Bread Group, which as you will see has been a generous supporter of the organization’s annual holiday drive.
All day long the gifts kept coming. And coming. And coming.
An outpouring of generosity that would ultimately brighten the holidays for nearly 1,400 needy families in Rhode Island.
Welcome to the annual Spirit of Giving holiday drive for Children’s Friend - Rhode Island’s oldest child welfare organization -founded in 1834.
Caprio: ``We only serve the most vulnerable kids in Rhode Island.’’
Executive Director David Caprio has been with Children’s Friend for 15 years. He says the non-profit organization continues to carry out the mission that its founder Harriet Ware had in the 1830s. Ware was recruited from Massachusetts to be a school teacher - she wound establishing a home for unwanted and abandoned children in Providence, some as young as six years old.
But it wasn’t just an orphanage, Harriet wanted to educate the children as well, something that was very progressive at the time. The kids were eventually placed for adoption. The founders included some of the most prominent families in Rhode Island.
Caprio: ``The Browns, the Lippitts, the Chafees. Women coming together and saying: `Gosh we see kids abandoned on the street, unwanted kids were abandoned on the street.’ There was no organization, there was no governmental agency that took care of poor neglected children.’’
For the better part of the past two centuries the organization has been a trend-setter - in the 1920s placing children who had been living at this home, into foster homes, unheard of at the time.
In 2015 what was once known as Children’s Friend and Service has evolved into an organization that runs Head Start programs like this one at 10 sites throughout Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls - serving 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds.
Tracy Braz recently became a Head Start supervisor after working as a teacher for nearly 30 years.
Hummel: ``What’s it like working with kids this age?’’
Braz: ``I think it’s the most rewarding experience you could ever have. The impact on the children. it’s just enormous. The love and support you can give them, they give back tenfold and I don’t know any other profession where you can find that.’’
Elisa DeMatos has been a Head Start teacher for 26 years, the last five at Children’s Friend. Every day she gets a first-hand look at the effect the program is having on her pre-schoolers.
Hummel: ``Do you think about where some of these kids would be if they didn’t have head start?’’
DeMatos: ``I think they would be less prepared, just at social skills, direction with the other children, following routine. I think if what we do with them helps them be successful in kindergarten because basically all of those little things, we might think it doesn’t matter: being able to sit in a circle time, answering questions back and forth. If they don’t have that and they get to kindergarten they might have social skills problems.’’
It comes as no surprise that the holiday season can be one of the toughest for their clients. Because Children’s Friend matches individual needs of each family with specific gifts, planning for the holiday drive actually begins in the summer.
Caprio: ``Kids are all talking about we’re going to get presents and new clothing, and what is a family that has absolutely no resources going to do then? That’s where the holiday drive comes in.’’
Think about Christmas or Hanukah in your house. Then think about this:
Caprio: ``There’s a lot of basic things in there like a new coat, like gloves, like socks, blankets. Some real basic necessities that a lot of us take for granted and our kids don’t have, and they certainly never get many of those items new. A brand new piece of clothing is a great Christmas present.’’
Nine days before Christmas an army of managers from Panera Bread cafes in Rhode Island and Massachusetts descended on the parking lot of Children’s Friend with hundreds of gifts in hand - led by Panera’s operating partner Bahjat Shariif.
We interviewed Caprio the day after the gift drive.
Caprio: ``Each of their cafes and bakeries across the state and around the state, they break up those families and they put up little tags at the registers and their customers and employees take those tags, go out and buy a gift, go back to the Panera. Panera then accumulates all those gifts, brings them all in, it was overwhelming for me to see that yesterday. That represents literally hundreds if not thousands of people associated with Panera Bread – whether they’re employees or customers – giving something to someone they don’t know, but they know something about from the wish list. But that don’t know that person and they’re trusting Panera, they’re trusting Children’s Friend and they’re trusting our workers that it’s put to good use.’’
Other corporations and individuals have helped grow the holiday drive every year, so much so that the overflow of donations is now put in a building across the street before being distributed to the families.
Caprio: ``I’ve actually seen some of the deliveries where a child opens wide a gift and they got a sweater and there was a tag on it. And they’ve never had a piece of clothing with a tag on it before and that was so exciting.’’
While the holiday drive is a high-profile event, Children’s Friend runs nearly two dozen programs the rest of the year that include:
Family Counseling, Adoption, Foster Care, Childcare and Pregnancy Counseling
And five years ago it started a Dads Making a Difference program - since much of the focus had traditionally been on mothers.
Chuck Field was a divorced father of two when he was hired to work in the program.
Field: ``A lot of the challenges that I had, again being a divorced dad, I’ve been able to take some of that experience and dovetail it into my job here; navigating the child support system, navigating to visitation schedules and things like that.’’
Jim Alexander has worked with the Dads’ program for five years.
Alexander: ``But a lot of them are struggling to try to stay connected to their children with all of the conditions that they have to meet.’’
Field: ``One of the strengths of the Dads’ program is I don’t have a master degree in fatherhood education. I’m a dad, and the whole team we approach it just like we’re brothers. So when somebody is having a hard time, the dads worker is there to pick them up, help them moved on.’’
Like many non-profits, Children’s Friend faces the yearly challenges of limited resources and a growing need. But Caprio says the daily results he sees across the organization put those challenges in perspective.
Caprio: ``You know, when I’m having a bad day or I just forget what it’s all about, I can walk a few blocks and go into one of our classrooms or I can walk to one of the groups that one of our programs is running and just see the impact our workers are having. You see happy kids, safe kids, who are being challenged; you see parents who are engaged, who are also challenged and who are learning new skills and it’s like wow, this is what it’s all about, you’re making a difference.’’
In Providence, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.