Susan remembers the moment when her heart’s desire came into focus. She was in the Los Angeles Coliseum attending a workshop on how to make communities work. Right before the lunch break, the emcee introduced a special guest. He entered from the back of the room and swaggered up the aisle—a young Hispanic man wearing a do-rag, clunky boots, and saggy pants, a pack of cigarettes rolled in his sleeve. One arm was in a cast, and he waved it at the crowd and yelled, “I didn’t get it fighting; I got it playing touch football!”
The young man went on to share his story: how he’d been a gang leader in Oakland, his life set on a dangerous and short-lived trajectory. He got involved with the Breakthrough Foundation for Youth at Risk, and it changed his life. He discovered that though he’d done and seen some awful things, he could live beyond the age of 25, not a given, and provide for his son. He stopped drinking, drugging, and living a life of crime.
“That young man’s experience touched me deeply,” says Bender Phelps, Co-founder of Washington County Kids (WCK) and today President of Friends of Washington County Kids, a political action committee that supports WCK’s work. “I knew I had found something important to dedicate my life to.”
Bender Phelps returned to her home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and began raising money for the Breakthrough Foundation. She later co-founded the New Mexico Youth at Risk mentoring program, which she helmed for 15 years.
Bender Phelps’s heart has been beating strongly for disadvantaged children and youth ever since. She ended up in Beaverton, Oregon, when she fell in love with an Oregonian and returned home with him 21 years ago. Between them, Susan and Jim have four children and ten grandchildren.
The young man from Oakland taught Bender Phelps that kids who struggle to stay in school, not fall behind academically in the summer, and stay out of trouble while their parents are at work can make it. They just need a hand up.
In 2009 she and Katie Riley co-founded Washington County Kids and, later, Susan founded Friends of Washington County Kids, which raises money for out-of-school time (OST) programs in Washington County. “Tax levies are the only way to generate the level of funding required for these programs, but we haven’t been able to make that happen yet,” Bender Phelps says. She’s hopeful that the Washington County Board of Commissioners will eventually put an OST program-funding levy on the ballot.
“OST programs benefit everyone,” Bender Phelps says.“Parents know their children are being cared for and their educations enriched. Employers get employees that are 100 percent present at work. Citizens get a safer community because kids are less likely to get into trouble. And property owners who live in strong communities get higher property values. When we strengthen families, everybody thrives.”