Mentoring program provides Detroit kids with a forever ‘friend’

An adult on the left and a child on the right, both wearing light colored t-shirts sit at a picnic table with green trees in the background.
Autumn Palmer, a professional mentor from Friends of Detroit, hangs out with her mentee Peighton during an outing under one of the pavilions at City Centre Park in Southfield. (Quinn Banks of BridgeDetroit)

On a warm, sunny day last July, Autumn Palmer and Peighton made their way to the playground at City Centre Park in Southfield.

Peighton hopped on a friendship swing. Palmer, 28, gave her a couple of pushes.

“Do you want to go higher?” Palmer asked. Peighton nodded.

After a few minutes, the 10-year-old wanted to try the zip line. “Ready?” Palmer said. Peighton held on tight to the cord and smiled as she slid to the other side.

At first glance, the two look like they could be mother and daughter. But their special bond began only three years ago thanks to an unique mentorship program.

Palmer and Peighton are part of the Detroit chapter of Friends of the Children, where children ages 4-6 are paired with a professional member called a “Friend” for 12 years or longer. The mentor is there for all of the child’s ups and downs –helping them learn how to read and write, navigating their relationships with friends and family, exploring their interests, and preparing them for college or a career.

BridgeDetroit has been following Palmer and Peighton for seven months, seeing their interactions and getting updates on Peighton’s progress. BridgeDetroit is identifying Peighton by only her first name to protect her privacy.

The organization has 36 locations across the country, including New York, Chicago, Houston, and Los Angeles. The Detroit chapter launched in 2020.

Friends of the Children works with kids who have adverse childhood experiences or ACEs, said Detroit Executive Director Derschaun Brown. These include experiencing violence, abuse or neglect, having a parent who is addicted to drugs or alcohol or being placed in the foster care system.

Brown, who joined the organization in 2022, said one thing that attracted her to the job is that Friends are not volunteers but paid, full-time mentors. Friends work with eight to 10 children each, spending three to four hours every week with each of them.

As someone who has worked in education for 25 years, Brown had never seen a model like Friends of the Children.

“I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” she said. “I’ve been mentoring for 30 years and I’ve never received a dime. And, once I looked at the data around the organization, I said, ‘I’ve got to be part of this.’”

A child on the right in a swing while an adult stands behind her both wearing light colored t-shirts outside with green trees in the background.
Autumn Palmer pushed her mentee Peighton on a swing at City Centre Park in Southfield last July. The two are part of the Detroit chapter of Friends of the Children. (Quinn Banks of BridgeDetroit)

Counted out of society

Friends of the Children was founded in Portland, Oregon, in 1993 by entrepreneur Duncan Campbell and his wife Cindy Campbell. Duncan grew up in an impoverished neighborhood with alcoholic parents and wanted to help kids who came from similar backgrounds.

The first chapter opened in Portland with three professional mentors serving 24 children and eventually spread to other cities like Seattle, New York, and Boston.

Today, the organization serves 3,000 children. In its 31 years, Friends of the Children has seen outcomes such as 83% of youth receiving their high school diploma or GED, 92% going on to enroll in postsecondary education, enlist in the military, or enter the workforce with a living wage job, and 93% staying out of the juvenile justice system.

The Detroit chapter currently has eight Friends and serves 64 children and is expecting to enroll two more Friends and 16 kids next month, Brown said. Mentors must have an associate degree or higher, experience working with youth, and a passion for working with children.

“Many of our mentors come from education,” Brown said. “They were former teachers, former counselors, those who have trauma-informed practice experience and so, they come to us with a wealth of knowledge and experience, as well as love. Those are the three critical components that they must bring in order to be a part of Friends of the Children Detroit.”

Children are referred to the organization from four sources – Detroit Public Schools Community District, River Rouge School District, child welfare agency Orchard Children’s Services, and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Brown said Friends of the Children focuses on kids ages 4-6 because that’s when they’re at the beginning of their education journey.

“They (the referral sources) do an assessment on each of the children,” she said. “It could be that they’re threatening to be a part of foster care, they’re in foster care, or that they’re having some challenges in school. Once they do the assessment and determine, ‘Oh yeah, this kid has two ACEs,’ then they qualify to be a part of our program.”

Kids who face systemic and circumstantial barriers are often counted out of society, Brown said.

She was one of them.

Brown’s parents divorced and her father was absent from her life. Brown eventually gained a stepfather, but he died from a drug overdose. That left her mom a single parent raising Brown and her two siblings.

Brown said she didn’t have a mentor growing up and had to come to terms with her childhood trauma on her own.

“That’s why we’re fighting so hard for them (the children) because there is a chance for them to experience optimal success. There’s an opportunity for them and their families to thrive and not just survive,” she said.

An adult on the left and a child on the right, both wearing light colored t-shirts sit at a picnic table with green trees in the background.
Autumn Palmer and Peighton worked on a puzzle together at City Centre Park last July. The two often go on outings to the park or the library. (Quinn Banks of BridgeDetroit)

‘It takes a village…’

Peighton has also faced traumatic experiences in her young life. Her father is out of the picture and her mother is incarcerated. The fourth grader and her two siblings live with their grandmother, Tori Scheday-Walton, in northwest Detroit. In addition, Peighton has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, which can make it challenging to focus in school.

Scheday-Walton said she was referred to Friends of the Children by Sonya Lewis, the principal at Peighton’s school, Detroit Leadership Academy. They joined the organization in June 2020.

“I just felt like Peighton needed an extra buddy or a person in her life,” Scheday-Walton said. “It takes a village to raise children and you can never have too many helpers in a child’s life.”

Since Peighton started Friends of the Children at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, her first meetings with Palmer were virtual. But as restrictions began to ease, the two would go to places like the park or the library. During the school year, Palmer spends four hours a week with Peighton; two hours in school and two hours outside of school.

And Palmer assists Peighton with her growing interest in gardening. She has grown tomatoes, celery, onions, carrots and more, her grandmother said.

“She’s an excellent gardener,” Palmer said.

When it comes to schoolwork, Palmer is there to help Peighton with reading and math. The mentor also worked with Scheday-Walton to get school officials to offer Peighton an individualized education program, or an IEP.

“Autumn definitely advocated for me to make sure I knew what to say and do so they could get that in place,” Scheday-Walton said.

She has seen her granddaughter’s confidence grow with Palmer.

“She encourages Peighton a lot. It’s like having a big sister/co-mom for me,” Scheday-Walton said. “And Peighton depends on Autumn and looks forward to seeing her. It’s not often that a child looks forward to spending time with another adult that’s not a family member.”

“I like everything about her,” Peighton added about her Friend.

Last month, Palmer and Peighton participated in the Friends of the Children’s Mentor Day event at the organization’s headquarters inside Durfee Innovation Society. Along with several other kids and mentors, the two conducted science experiments from a kit, like making putty and perfumes.

Since meeting almost four years ago, Peighton has become a stronger reader and more confident in herself, Palmer said. Together, they’re working on goals like limiting screen time, eating healthier, and memorizing times tables.

“And I feel like she’s found the things that she really enjoys to do and advocates to do those things more often,” Palmer said.

Time will tell how Peighton will continue to grow. The pair have eight more years together, and possibly a lifetime, to go.

Micah Walker is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. You can reach her at mwalker@bridgedetroit.com.

The Latest

District leadership has balked at the idea, saying a loan ‘only shifts the problem’ to future years.

Despite a petition with more than 65 signatures from the school's families, parents say it is unclear why the club hasn't been formed.

Philadelphia schools will get a $232 million increase, but the state opted not to codify a plan to close funding gaps between low-income and wealthy districts.

Interested candidates must file for candidacy by July 23 Three positions are open, and at least one long-standing member is not seeking re-election.

Philadelphia schools are slated to get a nearly $232 million increase in basic education funding under the new budget Gov. Josh Shapiro signed Thursday.

Miss Major Middle School is one of 21 possible new charter schools vying for just nine spots, as applicants say a SUNY Charter Schools Institute vote could come as soon as next week.