Help a kid

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We’ve all heard the saying, "A little bit goes a long way."

The Franklin County Children Services Volunteer Program proves that theory to be true.

They are putting a call out for central Ohio residents to set aside a little extra time each month to make a big difference in the lives of children in need.

Franklin County Children Services (FCCS) is an organization devoted to helping children who are struggling through abuse, neglect, dependency and delinquency. They work with more than 25,000 children each year, and are always trying to help more. To do that, they need your help.

FCCS is the only county organization of its kind in Ohio that utilizes volunteers to facilitate the success of its programs.

They offer four types of volunteer and mentor programs, ensuring that there is a program that fits with each child and each adult.

The programs include Friendship volunteers, Crisis Center volunteers, Malaika and Simba mentors, and College-Bound mentors.

Volunteers are required to be at least 18 years of age or older and to have a valid drivers license and car insurance.

The most popular of the programs, Friendship volunteers, requires the volunteer to spend time with the child on a one-on-one basis at least twice each month. This can include any activity that interests both the child and the mentor.

Some activities recommended by FCCS include trips to the library, the zoo, the movies, dinner, shopping and school functions.

"People go into this wanting to help improve the life of a child, but their lives are touched, too," said Volunteer Coordinator and Recruiter for FCCS, Leesa Evans.

"They’re required to make contact two times a month, but lots of times they end up talking with the child lots more than that," said Evans.

She added that while FCCS does have a twice monthly contact policy, they make exceptions for special situations that may keep a mentor away from a child for a small period of time.

FCCS puts on quarterly activities for children and their mentors, such as skating  and pizza parties. They also offer occasional perks, like tickets to Blue Jackets games and Ballet Met.

FCCS requires that volunteers make at least a six-month commitment to a child, but Evans added that once a mentor makes a connection with a child, it tends to stick.

"I’ve seen some mentors stay with the same child for 15 years," she said.

FCCS takes a great amount of care in matching a child with a mentor with similar interests and hobbies. They also try to match mentors with children located close to their homes, although FCCS does reimburse mentors for mileage.

Similar to Friendship volunteers, Malaika and Simba mentors take part in a culturally specific program that matches African American adults with African American children.

If being a Friendship volunteer or a Malaika and Simba mentor isn’t your speed, FCCS has additional volunteer opportunities for you to try.

Crisis Center volunteers are not matched with specific children, but instead work at the Children Services Crisis Center and provide support and supervision to those that are brought in.

This job can require anything from simply watching a child, to calming a youngster who has just been through a difficult ordeal or bathing and dressing a very young child.

FCCS also offers a new program, College-Bound mentoring, which offers help and support for older students on the track to college.

Volunteers with this program will help students research and select schools, research financial aide options, navigate the application process and make a school selection. They may also be required to contact schools to find out information about topics such as tutoring and other support services.

The College-Bound program also serves as a support system and sounding board for students during a very stressful and difficult transition period.

College-Bound mentors have the same requirements as other volunteers, but the age limit is raised to 21, and it is expected that all volunteers for this program have some type of college experience.

Currently, 429 children associated with FCCS are matched with mentors and over 140 are on a wait-list. According to Evans, these numbers are fairly average. FCCS’ goal for 2008 is to have more than 500 children matched with mentors.

"The number of children waiting is probably more than that," said Evans, "but I don’t interview a child until I’m pretty sure I have a match for them. I don’t want to get their hopes up."

Children are nominated for mentors by their individual caseworkers. While some of them may be placed in group homes or foster care, many are still living at home. All children must have parent or guardian permission to participate in the mentor program.

"We’re not forcing this," said Evans.

Some children who are referred to the mentor program are not accepted. According to Evans, "children who have been through tons of sexual abuse or who have lots of aggression are not matchable."

Evans claims that these children can be especially difficult to work with.

"I wouldn’t do that to a volunteer," she said.

All FCCS volunteers are required to go through a similar application process.

The process starts by filling out an application, followed with an in-person meeting within the next couple of weeks. The applicant must provide three or four references, and until those references have responded, the process can go no further. FCCS also conducts background checks and finger prints applicants. The final step of the process is a one-time, two-hour training course that is offered once-monthly.

According to Evans, someone moving quickly through the process can complete it in around 45 days.

Anyone interested in volunteering with FCCS should call 275-2690 or e-mail Leesa Evans at laevans@fccs.co.franklin.ohio.us.

For information, visit Franklin County Children Services Web site at www.franklincountyoh.gov/children_services/.

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