Image: Loris Lora

3-year-old boy wakes up at home, and can’t find his parents. He walks out into Northeast Portland to look for them, but they’re at a bar, uninterested in their tiny child, in one of many such moments in a childhood characterized by neglect. Fast-forward seven decades: that boy is now 74, and the founder of an organization laser-focused on helping kids like he once was succeed.

Duncan Campbell beat the odds. He made it through college, and started a highly profitable timberland investment company. In 1992, he created the Campbell Institute for Children (now the Children’s Institute), dedicated to improving the odds for Oregon’s at-risk children. From this grew Friends of the Children, which began in 1993 with 24 high-risk kids from North Portland schools. The idea? Each child is assigned a paid mentor for 12.5 years, the rough span of primary education, who helps them with homework, visits their home, checks in at school, and mentors and advocates for them. The results are staggering: 83 percent of kids served graduated high school; 93 percent avoided the juvenile justice system. Today, the organization is in 15 cities, helping thousands of children across the country. 

Eric Gabrielson, who left a career at Wieden & Kennedy to work at Friends of the Children and now as the CEO of the Campbell Foundation, says Campbell’s impact extends beyond the children.

“The name of this award, Light a Fire, is so true to Duncan and his ability to inspire people,” says Gabrielson. Says Campbell: “I wanted to change one child’s life before I died.” Mission, to the magnitude of thousands, accomplished.

 

Do you know other nonprofits, organizations, or volunteers doing incredible work? Nominate them for our 2019 Light a Fire Awards—submissions are open now!

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