Small idea grew big with The Friendship Club
The Friendship Club recently hosted a dinner to celebrate my retirement as executive director at the end of June. The board has named Jennifer Litton as my successor. She and I founded this grassroots, community-based nonprofit in 1995. The idea behind The Friendship Club was simple – to provide girls who were at risk for failure in school, for drug and alcohol abuse or teen pregnancy with academic and emotional support to say “no” to unhealthy behaviors.
In 1995 I was coordinator of the Pal Program in the Nevada City Elementary School District. One of the disturbing facts I learned during conversations with juvenile justice officials was that girls were catching up to young males in anti-social and violent acts. The number of adolescent girls entering the juvenile justice system had risen dramatically (over 200 percent over a 10-year period versus a 30 percent rise for boys.)
I convinced the school district board of trustees of the need for a summer intervention program for middle school girls. Gold Country Kiwanis Club donated funds to pay for program supplies. I recruited two young women to help me – Jennifer, and Amanda Chavez – home from college for the summer. The 15 girls who were part of this pilot program met once a week. They were rewarded with excursions that broadened their narrow field of vision. At the end of the summer, they were transformed. They had learned some valuable lessons about responsibility and hard work, and about the perseverance needed to prevail when family support systems fail. They also made friends, some of them for the first time.
At Christmastime some of the women who had mentored these girls shopped with them for winter clothes and shoes. One of the girls commented, “I’ve never had a new pair of shoes before.” Another girl referred to the women as “Friendship Angels” and the name stuck.
In 1997 The Friendship Club became a 501 (c)(3). Kay Lott Baker was our first board president. The board and I decided that we would not seek government funding – that this would be a local program with local support.
County Superintendent of Schools Terry McAteer offered a small start-up space in his office for that first year. I raised funds from the community so we could expand to serve 30 girls, and I hired Jennifer (who had graduated from college) to be assistant director. Jenn and I held weekly after school meetings at area middle schools. Monthly field trips exposed the girls to professional women in the community. The Friendship Angels taught social skills and provided basic needs assistance.
The Friendship Club moved twice over the next few years to accommodate the growing number of girls who were being referred by teachers and counselors. Dan Castles, CEO and president of Telestream Inc., made an appeal to our local technology firms to help us put together a small computer lab. Thanks to a leadership gift from Dr. Ralph and Doris Schaffarzick, and support from several private foundations, our lab was up and running in 2000.
We also furnished a classroom, library and a makeshift kitchen where we could prepare healthy meals. By this time the program had expanded to include evening as well as afternoon tutoring sessions for girls, and a summer program that included camping trips, a reading club, and fitness activities.
Now at the beginning of our tenth summer, The Friendship Club has 100 girls enrolled. We have a volunteer coordinator who recruits and trains over 150 volunteers. We have two credentialed teachers on staff. And we recently embarked on a strategic planning process to insure a smooth transition in leadership and to provide a road map for the future.
As I end my tenure as executive director, I recognize that what began as an idea to help a few at-risk adolescent girls make it through their teen years has grown to represent something much larger. The Friendship Club is an example of civic renewal at its best and the girls are not the only beneficiaries of our efforts. Our community has experienced a sense of growth, too, by noticing and embracing young people who would otherwise have remained invisible.
I’ve assured the girls I won’t disappear from the scene (I’ll continue to host summer pool parties at my home). I will also write grants for The Friendship Club. I wish Jenn all the best in her new position, and leave with the knowledge that The Friendship Club will continue to have a profound influence on the lives of Nevada County girls.
Mary Collier is the former executive director of The Friendship Club.
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