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YouthFriends school volunteer program shutting down

Updated: 2013-04-11T03:59:49Z

By JOE ROBERTSON

The Kansas City Star

After 18 years and some 300,000 students served, YouthFriends is calling it quits.

The nonprofit agency recruited and screened thousands of adult volunteers for more than two dozen area school districts, sending them into lunchrooms and classrooms to spend time one-to-one mentoring a youth friend.

But signs of financial strain had been mounting, as the agency this year required participating school districts to begin bearing some of the program’s costs. This week, the agency notified the districts that the service would end by May 31.

“It has been a challenging time for YouthFriends under the current economic environment,” the agency said in a written statement to The Star. “While YouthFriends will no longer provide service for each school district, we have provided tools, knowledge and a passionate group of volunteers that will allow the program to flourish under the ownership of each individual school district.”

YouthFriends notified districts this week with a certified letter, which came as a surprise, several school district officials said.

“When you lose a program like this that gets to the core of helping kids, it’s unfortunate,” said Hickman Mills School District spokesman John Baccala. YouthFriends volunteers have been helping in classrooms, often tutoring students, he said, “and that’s the kind of help we can use right now.”

Volunteers who are already serving schools will be able to carry on their work, but districts will have to take on the costs of recruiting and performing background checks of new volunteers.

YouthFriends is negotiating to give the YouthFriends brand and intellectual property to the North Kansas City School District — one of its original partners and its largest with 800 to 1,000 volunteers every year.

Other school districts, however, will have to return YouthFriends manuals and other materials and strip the YouthFriends name from any future volunteer programs.

That won’t be easy for many districts. They have used the easily recognized and understood YouthFriends name to mark most of their volunteer campaigns.

“The brand and their screening was a comfort blanket for us,” said Kelly Wachel, spokeswoman for the Center School District, which like North Kansas City and Hickman Mills, was one of the original five districts to launch the pilot program 18 years ago.

The district is contacting all its volunteers to make sure they understand that Center wants them to keep serving their students and that the district will be designing its own program to support them.

“Our volunteers are too important to us,” she said. “They are counselors, academic coaches, friends, support systems ...”

The YouthFriends program hit a high point six years ago when the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation gave the program a three-year, $5.4 million grant to recruit more mentors — particularly in math and science.

The expanded service, called UpLink, aimed to put more mentors in classrooms, more students in internships and teachers into paying summer jobs in their education fields.

The program didn’t grow to expectations, the Kauffman Foundation did not renew its support, and the harsh economy began to take its toll on other supporters of YouthFriends as well.

The program made severe staff reductions, but still felt financial stress.

YouthFriends tried charging fees this year in a “continued effort to diversify funding in a weak economy,” YouthFriends Executive Director Laura Norris said.

Center, a smaller district with fewer volunteers, paid $1,500; North Kansas City paid $2,500.

North Kansas City has more than 900 volunteers this year, and it seemed fitting, Norris said, to offer the YouthFriends name to the district — an offer the district said it is reviewing.

“For me,”Norris said, “it is gratifying to see the YouthFriends vision and principles live on in a district so committed to community engagement in its schools.”

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

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