When school is not in session, what do children and youth do? If a program is in place, they can go there, but many programs struggle for funding.

A new organization is working to change that picture. Programs that provide mentoring, prevention of child abuse, after-school, weekend and summer activities offer youth in need the opportunities for growth and positive development.

Research has revealed that from 2000 to 2010, child abuse in Washington County increased by 77 percent. During that time, the number of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches increased from 22 percent of students to 40.3 percent. Additionally, between the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 school years, the number of homeless students increased by almost 500 to nearly 2,300. Abuse and poverty increase the risk of negative behaviors such as dropping out, drug and alcohol use, and teenage pregnancy.

In 2011, a group of dedicated volunteer community leaders decided that something needed to be done. They formed the Children’s Opportunity Fund Initiative of Washington County (COFI) as a response to the decrease in funding for out-of-school programs that are vital to the success of our young people. The group advocates that every child deserves to grow up in a positive, safe environment to learn and become full and productive students. When the state discontinues funding for the Washington County Commission on Children and Families in 2014, the need for COFI will increase.

In addition to family resource centers, after-school programs in Forest Grove, Hillsboro, Tigard-Tualatin and Beaverton will be affected by the loss of commission funding.

Another after-school and summer program, Adelante Chicas, serves more than 300 Latina girls in Forest Grove and Hillsboro, ages 8 to 18 years, offering activities that develop self-confidence, social graces and friendships. The funding cuts would mean fewer outings for low-income girls who desperately need opportunities to explore their world in a safe, educational environment.

The commission programs are funded by the state and administered through the Commission on Children and Families with very little additional county funding. The Oregon Youth Development Council informed the commission recently that it will provide a one-year contract extension when the Legislature passes the state budget. But that is only for one year.

Other programs for youth have already lost funding. When the Hillsboro Safe Schools/Healthy Students grant ended in 2009-10, only five of the 22 after-school programs funded by the grant stayed open.

The lack of long-term funding for these programs shows a need to provide a stable source of support for children’s programs.

COFI aims to sustain evidence-based children’s programs throughout Washington County. Our immediate goal is to determine, via polling and focus groups, the awareness of county residents to the need for programs that benefit the county’s children and their willingness to support them. This will allow us to demonstrate the viability of a campaign.

A growing number of mayors, city councilors, school representatives and families have offered their support to COFI. However, in order for this initiative to become a reality for our children, we need additional community support.

Katie Riley is chairwoman of the Children’s Opportunity Fund Initiative of Washington County, which is based in Hillsboro.

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