Albert Einstein once said, “Only a life lived for others is a life worth living.” Humans’ powerful need to give back to their own species drives enormous amounts of financial giving and volunteering at nonprofits nationwide.
The same is true in Portsmouth. In a big way.
Here, people are doing quite a lot of living for others to make an enormous difference for some of that city’s most vulnerable residents: people under age 18 interacting with the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Courts. They have been helping Portsmouth children for more than 20 years.
Their efforts are spearheaded by the charity Friends of the Portsmouth Juvenile Court, an umbrella organization with many initiatives including a Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program.
In some Hampton Roads jurisdictions, CASA is a stand-alone charity. The CASA program of Friends will be featured in an upcoming AltDaily article.
Friends is led by Susan Fincke, the executive director since 2010. She has an undergraduate degree from University of North Carolina in political science and a master’s in urban studies from Old Dominion University.
One of Friends’ key efforts is its community service program, which matches Portsmouth teens who have committed certain offenses with volunteer opportunities as a means of providing restitution.
“When a juvenile commits a misdemeanor, judges often want to keep children from being harshly affected by the criminal justice system, so they will assign community service as punishment,” said Fincke. “This might be a kid who got into a fight or keyed a car, and then is required to do 20 hours of service.”
Friends manages this program for the court. They identify the worksite, ensure that the worksite meets state regulations for community service, and make sure the child will be safe during her or his tenure. Friends also reports back to the judge and parole officer.
“The work may not be glamorous,” pointed out Fincke. “They may be emptying trash cans or cleaning a parking lot.”
The Wesley Community Service Center is another place accepting many teen volunteers performing service mandated by the Portsmouth Juvenile Court system. At Wesley, teens may serve food to the homeless.
Another key Friends program is Transportation Motivating Change. This endeavor pays for travel so parents can visit children incarcerated outside of Portsmouth. The goal is to keep children and their families communicating with each other.
Studies, according to Fincke, show that maintaining this connection helps provide the best possible outcome for the child. “Our travel program is steeped in research,” she said.
Friends is always seeking partnerships with other organizations.
“All of us want the child to benefit and learn something,”Fincke explained.
One of the charity’s many successful partnerships is with Opportunity Inc., which bills itself as Hampton Roads’ Workforce Development Board. This year, they’ve helped find about a dozen internships for Portsmouth teens via Friends.
“These internships are especially valuable for teens who may not be the most polished,” according to Fincke. “These are kids who might otherwise have a tough time getting a job,” she said.
Fincke noted that she is “thrilled” with the outcome of this partnership so far.
Friends partnered with the Together We Can Foundation’s Smart Transition program, which has a mission to “improve outcomes for at-risk youth in transition to independent adult life and the workforce in Hampton Roads and Southeastern Virginia.” In this program, kids instructors about their plans for a future career.
“Many aspire to be football players or rap stars,” Fincke explained. “We try to provide a dose of reality.”
The adults discuss kids’ goals and how they plan to reach them, while also looking with them at alternatives to college, such as a trade school or the military.
“We try to get them to think about what they need to do now in order to achieve their goals,” she said.
Friends also helps Portsmouth juvenile offenders in the court system by providing clothing for job interviews and bus passes.
Although Friends is designated by the Internal Revenue Service as a 501c3 charity, meaning donations are tax-deductible, the group receives funds from a variety of sources including the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, Department of Juvenile Justice, and the City of Portsmouth. A typical annual budget is approximately $180,000. Friends employs only one other full-time employee, who is the CASA program administrator, and two part-timers.
Headline events include a children’s chair fair. Friends identifies local artists who decorate small chairs that are later sold at an auction event. Last year, which was the event’s debut year, chairs featured a Dr. Seuss theme. This year, the theme is the Peanuts. The auction takes place on Thursday, August 23.
In April, the organization, like many child welfare agencies nationwide, marks National Child Abuse Prevention Month by planting blue and white pinwheels for the public to view. This year—which was the effort’s ninth year—pinwheels were placed outside at the Portsmouth’s Union Bank & Trust Pavilion. Friends seeks sponsors for the campaign and has a ceremony on the first Monday of each year with a speaker.
CASA requires a significant and sustained time commitment for volunteers; however, those with less time available who want to help Friends can always assist with administrative work, fundraising events, and coat drives.
More information is available at fopjc.org.