Derschaun Brown is the Executive Director for Friends of the Children Detroit, division of a national model and organization that has been serving at risk (or as she likes to say, “at promise) youth for 30 plus years. There are 36 chapters of Friends of the Children, and Detroit is one of the newer chapters. The mission of the group is to help children who have had at least two major Adverse childhood experiences (ACES). Which many of the children they work with have already experienced four by the age of four.
Friends of the Children provides kids with a safe space and a paid professional to mentor them into adulthood. According to Brown, their program has proven to be an effective method to help troubled children develop and ensure that they avoid ending up in the juvenile justice system.
We sat down with her to learn more about the program, their message, and her personal journey that led her to being the Executive Director for the Detroit branch.
BLAC: What made you personally want to work with children?
Derschaun: What got me involved over 25 years ago was me growing up in the city of Detroit. It was during the era of when crack cocaine was introduced to our community, and it was introduced into my household when I was growing up by way of my father. He indulged in crack cocaine and it just turned our family upside down and devastated our family unit. My parents got a divorce. My mom was now a single parent. Another sibling was incarcerated. And I had some challenges myself in high school because of the dysfunction in our home.
I did not want another child to experience what I experienced growing up, because it really could have sent me down on a horrible path. I was just so fortunate to have some mentors who told me, “Derschaun, I see something in you. I see greatness on the inside of you. Regardless of what you’re portraying right now because you’re upset, I see greatness on the inside of you.” I have vowed to do the same thing for the children of Detroit, help them to find themselves. To find what it is that ignites that spark inside and to help them to cultivate that so that they can go on to do some amazing things in life in as I have. Regardless of their upbringing.
BLAC: Okay. Now, we have a lot of systems and different foundations to help children. Whether it be sports, school activities, camps, etc. What about the mentor model makes it so successful? And what makes your specific mentor model so unique?
Derschaun: Friends of the Children is a model in itself. There’s no other in the world like it that pays their mentors. Now I’ve been mentoring kids for 25 years and I’ve never received a dime. So that’s the one unique selling proposition that our “friends” are making a livable wage. Many of them make $55, 000 a year to do this work. Unlike your teacher who has 25 Children plus in their classroom, our mentors who we affectionately call “friends” they only have eight children that they work with, and they spend four hours a week with each child two hours inside of the classroom supporting them with their academics and two hours out in the community and in their homes.
Another unique point about Friends of the Children is that we’re not just be bopping in and out of their life like, “Okay I’ll mentor you for a month and I’m gone.” These mentors are with these children day in and day out, as well as their family members and their caregivers for 12 plus years no matter what.
Data shows that because of that caring, consistent relationship with that adult, that we won’t have the children being a part of the juvenile justice system, which you find with some ot the other mentoring programs because they don’t have that consistency attached to them.
BLAC: So what exactly does it take to be a mentor in this program?
Derschaun: Well one of the things that we really look for is that lived experience. It’s hard for you to serve from a place that you have not experienced yourself. I’m just a firm believer that you can’t be what you can’t see, and if you haven’t had those particular hurts growing up, it’s a little difficult for you to mentor a child who has. Let me give you one example. One child, their parent was murdered and the boyfriend killed himself. So, you have a murder suicide that this child saw right in front of them. If you haven’t had any type of traumatic experience, typically you can’t pour from a place that you haven’t experienced. That’s one of the things that we look for in our mentors. Tell us about your life. How was your upbringing? Did you have any devastating situations that you’ve worked through?
We also look for degrees. We look for folk who come from education, former teachers, counselors, social workers. Those are the ones who this position really resonates with because they want to help Children. And that’s another requirement. You have to have a heart for Children. This is not the area for everyone. When I was in education, I would tell teachers all the time, “It seems like you’re getting a little tired. Like you may want to do something else. I encourage you to do that because this is not the place where you can just camp out and just do anything.”
The kids are depending on you, and they deserve for you to show up fully every day. And when it gets to a point where you can’t show up, you need to think about another profession.
BLAC: Wrapping thing up here. What big things do you have planned going into 2020?
Derschaun: So one of the things that we’re doing is we’re getting ready to open up our clubhouse. That’s due to open at the end of April, we’re going to have an open house for the clubhouse and we’re modeling it after a makerspace. What we’re doing now is surveying the kids and asking, “What do you want in your clubhouse? What do you want to help you to learn?” We’re going to put that space together where they can come and learn. The main focus however is really STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Mathematics) because there are so many employment opportunities out that our kids just cannot take advantage of because they don’t have many STEAM expirences under their belts.
Inside of Detroit, if you go up Woodward, there are a lot of buildings that are underdeveloped because they don’t have the manpower to do it. I want to make sure that our kids are skilled in the areas of plumbing, electricians, technicians. Because there are careers out there for them to enjoy and make a great living.