Rhode Island Spotlight: Children’s Friend Helping Kids and Families

ElisaAll day long the gifts kept coming. And coming. And coming.

On a brisk day in mid-December it was an outpouring of generosity that would ultimately brighten the holidays for nearly 1,400 needy families in Rhode Island.

Welcome to the annual Spirit of Giving holiday drive for Children’s Friend, Rhode Island’s oldest child welfare organization, founded in 1834. On this day individuals and corporations would donate thousands of gifts — so many that the building in South Providence was overflowing.

hum1“We only serve the most vulnerable kids in Rhode Island,’’ said Executive Director David Caprio, who has been with Children’s Friend for 15 years. Caprio says the non-profit organization continues to carry out the mission that its founder Harriet Ware had in the 1830s. Ware was recruited from Massachusetts to be a school teacher – she wound up establishing a home for unwanted and abandoned children in Providence, some as young as six years old.

But it wasn’t just an orphanage, Harriet wanted to educate the children as well, an idea that was very progressive at the time. The kids were eventually placed for adoption. The founders included some of the most prominent families in Rhode Island.

“The Browns, the Lippitts, the Chafees,’’ Caprio recounted. “Women coming together and saying: ‘Gosh we see kids abandoned on the street, unwanted kids were abandoned on the street.’ There was no organization, there was no governmental agency that took care of poor neglected children.’’

For the better part of the past two centuries the organization has been a trend-setter – in the 1920s it was placing children who had been living at one big home on the East Side into foster homes, unheard of at the time.

hum2In 2015 what was once known as Children’s Friend and Service has evolved into an organization that runs Head Start programs at 10 sites throughout Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls – serving 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds.

It comes as no surprise that the holiday season can be one of the toughest for its clients. Because Children’s Friend matches the individual needs of each family with specific gifts, planning for the holiday drive actually begins in the summer.

“Kids are all talking about what they’re going to get — presents and new clothing — and what is a family that has absolutely no resources going to do then? That’s where the holiday drive comes in,’’ Caprio said.

Nine days before Christmas an army of managers from Panera Bread cafes in Rhode Island and Massachusetts descended on the parking lot of Children’s Friend with hundreds of gifts in hand – led by Panera’s operating partner Bahjat Shariif.

Other corporations and individuals have helped grow the holiday drive every year, so much so that the overflow of donations is now put in a building across the street before being distributed to the families.

“I’ve actually seen some of the deliveries where a child opens wide a gift and they got a sweater and there was a tag on it,’’ Caprio said. “And they’ve never had a piece of clothing with a tag on it before and that was so exciting.’’

hum3While the holiday drive is a high-profile event, Children’s Friend runs nearly two dozen programs the rest of the year that include family counseling, adoption, foster care, childcare and pregnancy counseling.

And five years ago it started a Dads Making a Difference program – since much of the focus had traditionally been on mothers. Chuck Field was a divorced father of two when he was hired to work in the program.

“A lot of the challenges that I had, again being a divorced dad, I’ve been able to take some of that experience and dovetail it into my job here; navigating the child support system, navigating to visitation schedules and things like that. One of the strengths of the Dads’ program is I don’t have a master degree in fatherhood education. I’m a dad, and the whole team approaches it just like we’re brothers. So when somebody is having a hard time, the dads worker is there to  pick them up, help them move on.’’

Like many non-profits, Children’s Friend faces the yearly challenges of limited resources and a growing need. But Caprio says the daily results he sees across the organization put those challenges in perspective.

hum4“You know, when I’m having a bad day or I just forget what it’s all about, I can walk a few blocks and go into one of our classrooms or I can walk to one of the groups that one of our programs is running and just see the impact our workers are having. You see happy kids, safe kids, who are being challenged; you see parents who are engaged, who are also challenged and who are learning new skills and it’s like wow, this is what it’s all about, you’re making a difference.’’

If you want to see the video version of this story go to RhodeIslandSpotlight.org . If you know of a person or organization who you think deserves the Spotlight, send an email to jim@RhodeIslandSpotlight.org

One response to “Rhode Island Spotlight: Children’s Friend Helping Kids and Families”

  1. This is a fantastic organization with an amazing history.

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