Friends of Children is fully dedicated to improving the lives of children and young adults impacted by foster care or juvenile-justice involvement. Our relationships with young people connect us to their stories and ground us in their perspectives.
We speak the truth on behalf of children, no matter how difficult it is to hear. We are champions of their best interests and advocate for the rights and dignity of children in and aging out of foster care. We recognize the whole child. Friends of Children commits to changing the course of their lives. Their future and our community’s legacy depend on it.
Our programs include CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), Seeing Our Voices, and Foster Dignity, providing basic personal growth needs to children in and aging out of foster care. We also advocate for the lives of vulnerable children on a state legislative level through our Children’s Union. Our FOCUS advocacy mentorship program connects young people who have aged out of foster care with adult community members who are closely matched to the young person’s particular needs in navigating young adulthood.
We understand the importance of approaching our work with a broad view, while simultaneously addressing immediate individual needs in our community. Through our programs and advocacy efforts, we help meet basic needs, provide important additional tools and resources, and mentorship opportunities that help to improve the well-being of children and young adults in our community. We also ensure that foster children are not shielded from the public eye - that they are seen and heard. Our policy advocacy efforts aid in making important systemic change that benefits the lives of children across Massachusetts.
“You’ve helped me more than you know. I feel like a person who is seen and heard. Before, I was a statistic. I was always looking for someone to take care of me. Now, I’m focused on my future in ways that I believe in. I trust myself and believe in myself. And, trust me, I’m going to help other kids know they aren’t alone.”
—19 year old Friends of Children youth
Friends of Children was formed as a child advocacy organization 501c(3) in 1990. From the beginning, our advocacy mission has defined the work of the agency as it addresses the needs of high risk children who are not readily supported by systems designed to protect them and encourage their full participation in society. From the outset, Friends of Children has provided essential child advocacy services without interruption to well over 15,000 children (99% of whom are low-income).
Since our inception, we have provided individual case advocacy to children with multiple special needs. In 1993, we initiated the volunteer based Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Program to serve Hampshire County. Our CASA program was expanded to serve children in Franklin County in 1994. Since its inception, the Franklin/Hampshire CASA program has trained over 530 volunteers to serve as Guardians ad Litem with an average retention rate of more than three years. The program annually serves an average of 80 abused and neglected children from these counties.
In 2002 we launched our Foster Dignity program that provides new backpacks, duffel bags, other basic needs and funds for education and extracurricular activities to foster children and young adults aging out of foster care. Throughout our history we have created and distributed several publications including “A Parent’s Guide to Special Education”, and sponsored conferences on vital issues pertinent to professionals working with vulnerable children. Friends of Children has led a variety of initiatives designed to maximize the potential of collaborations that foster improved service delivery to children and their families.
We provide various services to children and young adults across Massachusetts. Our programs and policy advocacy efforts are changing the lives of children every day.
Angels in Adoption Honoree
Patriots Foundation Children’s Advocacy Award
Ellen Sedlis Award (for Children’s Advocacy)
Debi Belkin, CASA Director
Community Action Achievement Award
Jane Lyons, Executive Director
The staff at Friends of Children are highly dedicated to the well-being of vulnerable children and youth. We are committed to providing advocacy and programs that have a positive impact on the lives of foster children and children aging out of foster care. We are passionate about doing whatever it takes for young people in the child welfare system to strive. This is at the heart of the work that we do.
Sarah Tanner, Interim Executive Director
Sarah is a partner with the resource development consulting firm, Financial Development Agency (Amherst, MA), where she provides interim executive leadership, board development, fundraising, and strategic planning services to area nonprofits. She first came to the area for her undergraduate studies at UMass and returned, again, after completing her MPA at UC-Denver. She has been actively involved in the social service sector of Western Massachusetts for over 25 years. In addition to consulting work, Sarah is also adjunct faculty with Bay Path University's Nonprofit Management Program. She and her family reside, happily, in Florence, MA.
Debi Belkin, Director of Programs
Debi Belkin brings a deep understanding of how to effectively advocate for children and adolescents in the child welfare system. She has over 40 years of experience advocating for court involved children and adolescents in Massachusetts. As the Friends of Children Director of Programs, she leads our Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program for Franklin and Hampshire county court systems and oversees our statewide FOCUS program. Debi holds a passionate belief that the state’s most vulnerable children must be heard.
Debi has a great deal of knowledge about the child welfare system and how the system impacts the lives of children we serve. She holds a Master’s degree in social work and a strong background in social work, supervision and nonprofit management. She is also a licensed independent, clinical social worker who provides therapy to adolescents who have experienced trauma. She is an innovator, having played a crucial role in advocating for the development of case practice within the Department of Children and Families to sustain support for older youth aging out of foster care with their independent living plans.
Debi understands how essential it is to create partnerships with other organizations to benefit the needs of young people. She has well-established connections in the legal and social service community and values effective communication to ensure that the needs of vulnerable children in our community are met.
Visit our CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) page to learn more about this program and opportunities to be a CASA volunteer.
Susan Swift, Development Director
Susan comes to Friends of Children with over 40 years of experience as an educator and nonprofit administrator. As a teacher and as a school principal, she supported children academically, emotionally, and socially, providing an environment where they and their families could feel at home and thrive.
As a nonprofit professional, Susan worked with students, parents, teachers, alumni and community members, and other constituents to create shared visions to promote growth and vibrancy in educational institutions. Building relationships with the community and donors was essential to her success.
After retiring from the field of education, Susan brought that same passion and commitment to Friends of Children in her role as Development Director. When she meets potential supporters, she is always quick to share, “The work of Friends of Children is critical to the wellbeing of these vulnerable children and youth and I am honored to be part of this important organization.”
Robbie Rubet, FOCUS Program Manager (West)
Robbie Rubet is the FOCUS Program Manager for Friends of Children following a clinical internship here and serving as the FOCUS Services Coordinator. She has over 20 years of experience in the field of social work. Throughout the years, Robbie connected well with the foster youth and families she worked with and quickly came to realize the need for greater support and advocacy for young people impacted by the child welfare system. Robbie’s passion for working with young people impacted by foster care led her to Friends of Children in January of 2022 as an intern for her MSW. When Robbie graduated with her Master’s in the spring of 2022, she remained on as staff, moving into her current role in January 2023. Robbie resides in Hampden County with her husband and 4 children. Robbie loves to knit, read, and spend time on her parents' farm in VT.
Mukesh Baral, FOCUS Program Manager (East/Greater Boston)
Mukesh Baral is a Co-Founder of Advocacy for Refugee and Immigrant Services for Empowerment (ARISE). He has a master’s degree in Conflict Resolution from the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He is a trained Mediator with an expertise in interpersonal and organizational conflict management. He did his first Masters in English Literature from Tribhuvan University, Nepal. Mukesh was born and raised in a small remote village in eastern Nepal and educated in Kathmandu. He was a News Anchor and a Television Journalist, covering foreign affairs, prior to immigrating to the U.S.A. As a journalist covering foreign affairs, he has researched, reported, and presented on several burning foreign affairs issues including the Bhutanese Refugee issue. Fighting against injustice and supporting vulnerable people has always defined Mukesh's work in the states. ARISE was a result of that motivation to advocate for equity and justice for one of the most vulnerable populations. He has a decade long child welfare experience. His work as a social worker, education coordinator, program coordinator, advocate supervisor, and program manager, through multiple nonprofits, has prepared him for understanding the complexities of the American “Child Welfare” systems. Mukesh still writes on political, social, and cross-cultural issues, pertaining to his Asian- American experience.
Valerie Smart, Volunteer & Community Outreach Coordinator
Valerie Smart comes to Friends of Children after more than 20 years of working in the corporate world of marketing and communications. She brings experience in journalism, advertising and community outreach and support to her position at Friends.
Now, instead of selling products or events, she's thrilled to be selling the joy of making a difference. As Volunteer Coordinator, she's often our first point of contact for individuals looking to make a difference for families involved in foster care or the juvenile justice system. Through her experiences as a Mom she is inspired to make sure all children have the opportunity to experience the love and support needed to be their best selves. Valerie is grateful to be a member of the Friends' team where her hard work can partner with purposeful heart work.
Valerie holds an undergraduate degree from Westfield State University. She is very active in her local community of Agawam, MA.
Sarah Segura, CASA Case Manager
Sarah began her work with the CASA program in 2021 while pursuing her Masters in Social Work. After a variety of experiences working abroad with at-risk populations in Cambodia, Panama, and Peru, Sarah came to Friends of Children with a desire to support those most in need within her home community of Western Massachusetts. She began as a generalist year intern, and moved into her current role after completing her requirements in spring of 2022. She brings experience in advocacy, case management, and program development, and has a passion for working with individuals and families of diverse cultural backgrounds. Sarah is passionate about working with families and providing them the support and services that they need to heal and grow. She holds firm to the belief that meaningful solutions to difficult situations can be found through collaborative practices and open communication.
Sarah holds a Bachelor's degree in Sociology from UMass Amherst and a Masters Degree in Social Worker from The University of New England. She is fully bilingual in English and Spanish.
Rosemary Koski, Program Support Specialist
Rosemary Koski is the Program Support Specialist for Friends of Children, supporting both CASA and FOCUS. Rosemary recently graduated with her Bachelors in Social Work from Elms College. While completing her undergraduate degree, Rosemary interned with CASA to expand her knowledge of the child welfare system and enhance her advocacy skills. Following her graduation in the spring of 2023 she happily stepped into her new role at FOC. Rosemary is excited to begin her career as a young professional and is grateful to have the opportunity to work for such an impactful organization.
Our Board of Directors
Jo-Anne Vanin, Board President
Susan Karas, Vice President
Toni Krell, Secretary
Kelly Sykes, Acting Treasurer
As a lifelong social worker, I have become keenly aware of the needs and challenges of children in the foster care system. And, as a parent, I know how difficult it can be to navigate the road to adulthood even when resources are available. When there is no support available, basic needs go unmet and kids have nowhere to turn. I am passionate about positively impacting the lives of so many children and working to improve the rights of children in foster care. Friends of Children provides that support and so much more and I am grateful to serve as the Board President.
Susan Karas, Immediate Past Board President
Interested in serving on our Board?
Friends of Children continuously considers volunteers for day to day activities, and for board-level service. We invite individuals who have a passion for our mission, leadership skills, and the ability to be a good steward of the organization to connect with us about board service. We welcome board volunteers from a variety of backgrounds and life experiences.
Prospective board members may submit an inquiry here and we will follow up with you.
Experience and skills that would greatly contribute to our mission and goals: