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Best Friends Mentoring Program sees drop in funding, demand in services

(Press Photo by Nadya Faulx) Best Friends Mentoring Program executive director Kris Fehr looks through files at the organization’s Villard Street office Friday in Dickinson. She said funding cuts have forced the organization to temporarily suspend one of its tutoring programs, even as demand for services has grown 140 percent in recent years.

When Cynthia Terry moved from Texas to Dickinson with her family a year ago, it took a while for her twins, now 11, to adjust to their new city.

"Our children were going through a hard time," she said. "They didn't have anyone. It's always difficult for children, when they start a new school, to get adjusted."

Terry began volunteering with the Best Friends Mentoring Program, an organization that matches children with teenage and adult mentors for weekly visits, after meeting executive director Kris Fehr.

The organization began in the 1990s after school counselors and social workers wanted to address a growing number of school-age children involved in minor crimes, such as vandalism and breaking curfew. Mentoring is a way to reach out to children while they're young, providing role models and guidance, Fehr said.

Not long after she began volunteering, Terry decided to get her own children enrolled in the program with mentors of their own.

"It made such a difference in their lives, someone spending time with them," she said. "It was something (for them) to look forward to."

But today the organization that helped Terry's family is now struggling to do the same for others. A sharp drop in funding two years ago, combined with a rise in students needing services, has left the organization short on resources. Meanwhile, demand has increased by as much as 140 percent.

"We're one of many non-profits who are experiencing issues because of the boom," Fehr said.

Needs grow along with community

As the oil industry began bringing an influx of new families to western North Dakota, Fehr said the program saw a "deluge of children, students being referred to our services" around the same time Dickinson began feeling the impacts of the growth.

The children the organization serves are affected by factors in their lives that they cannot control, Fehr said, like the economy or relocation.

"When you have stress in your community, and stress in the family, it shows in the children," she said.

Children with problems keeping up in school, self-esteem, or those who just need some extra attention that, for whatever reason, they don't find at home are often referred to the organization.

At its peak in 2011, after receiving a large three-year grant, the Best Friends Mentoring Program oversaw 253 students -- some from Dickinson, others from out of state -- all with a need for a positive figure in their lives. As the national recession lingered, donor and grant money fell off.

After one of the organization's two program coordinators left, Fehr was forced to temporarily suspend the tutoring program in 2012, affecting the 150 students enrolled in it.

Today, the group's sole program coordinator oversees about 57 matches, as many as the organization can handle. Fehr said she predicts that number will be up to 80 by the end of the year, once school starts. Between 10 and 20 children are on a waiting list for mentors.

"That's kind of heartbreaking, because it's a great program," said Leigh Wittenberg, a volunteer whose three children have gone through Best Friends, and whose daughter is now a mentor herself.

Following a death in the family not long after they moved to Dickinson from Montana 17 years ago, Wittenberg said she thought a mentor could provide her daughter with an outside adult with whom she could share her feelings.

"Any child could benefit from being in the program," she said. "You can't have enough positive influence in your children's life."

Mentor Caleb Burgard, who started mentoring a young student three years ago, said his experiences with his fifth-grade mentee have been life-changing for both of them.

"I can see, personally, in his life how much of a difference it has made," he said. "He looks forward to it every week."

Burgard said he was disappointed to hear the organization is struggling to serve more children.

"Even when I signed up, they had a long waiting list," he said. "Given that funding is down, I can imagine it's tough knowing that there's all those kids that need it."

Finding a funding a fix

After-school programs through Dickinson Public Schools, the West Dickinson Parent and Family Resource Center, and mentoring programs in schools offer similar services with similar goals of helping connect families to the community.

Fehr said that within Dickinson's small non-profit world, organizations often refer to each other. Families that can't be served at Best Friends are often directed to other groups for assistance, but Fehr said her organization is working on new efforts to once again grow its staff and support more children and mentors.

Fehr has been making the rounds to city and county officials to request funds from their respective upcoming 2014-15 budgets. She said the federal grants she used to apply for directly have been allocated to national organizations, which parcel them down to grassroots organizations like Best Friends.

"Even the little bit of funding has been drastically cut or reallocated," she said. "There's less money overall available."

Best Friends operates on a roughly $200,000 annual budget. Fehr said she will be requesting $15,000 from the city this year after receiving $5,000 last year.

"I believe that the city commissioners and county commissioners understand the need and see that need," she said.

Stark County Commission member Ken Zander said Best Friends will likely receive $20,000 from the county in the upcoming budget, as much funding as it did last year.

"Their budgets are stressed out because of higher demand," he said. "More people are seeking their services because of our increased population, increased whatever-else activity."

Zander said the community is seeing the same issues it did 20, even 50, years ago, but on a larger scale with the growing population.

"They have a very successful program," he said. "Yes, the county is spending money on this program, but in the long term, it's saving the county and taxpayers money."

About 80 percent of the organization's funds come from local community donations now, Fehr said, in the form of special fundraising throughout the year, such as the recent Family Fun Day and A Chocolate Affair, as well as a Santa photo station at the Prairie Hills Mall later this year.

It costs roughly $1,000 a year to mentor a child, a point Fehr said she emphasizes in the group's fundraising efforts.

"What speaks to a lot of people is the child," she said. "What does this program really do?"

But the organization will have to go beyond its usual events if it wants to bring funds back up, said development coordinator Pamela Bumgardner, who only last week joined the staff.

"We're gonna have to try new things," she said.

Even though her children are no longer matched with mentors, Terry said she has stayed involved with the organization, volunteering at fundraising events and helping to promote the mentoring program.

"A lot of children need that, much more than mine did," she said. "That's why I help promote it. The word needs to be out here to help."