Grantor: American Standard Foundation
Grantee: Best Friends Foundation
Amount: $300,000 over 3 years
“You’re only a teen one time/Make it a special time/Save your growing up for the life ahead of you.“ The Best Friends theme song is typical of the Best Friends program. It’s energetic, enthusiastic, and optimistic. It also has clear messages: The best kind of friend is one who encourages you to be a better person; sex is never a test of love; children deserve to begin life with married adult parents; and just because you’ve made mistakes in the past doesn’t mean that you have to continue doing the same things.
Founded in 1987 by Elayne Bennett, the wife of former Secretary of Education William Bennett, Best Friends is a youth development program with a character-building curriculum for adolescent girls. It celebrates abstinence from sex, drugs, and alcohol, and teaches girls that they can succeed in life only if they set goals, exercise self-restraint, and maintain their self-respect.
The American Standard Foundation has been a funder of Best Friends since 1996. The foundation is affiliated with American Standard Companies Inc., a leading producer of air conditioning systems, bathroom and kitchen fixtures and fittings, and automotive braking and control systems.
The president and CEO of American Standard, Emmanuel Kampouris, wanted the foundation to be innovative in its grantmaking. According to Robert Cavey, an attorney for the company who is involved in the company foundation, Kampouris’s message to the foundation’s board was, ”You’re allowed to be smart; get a lot done for your money; have a real impact on society.“ To that end, Kampouris suggested that the foundation fund programs that helped people in the inner city and that aided young people in developing skills for the future.
Inspired by Kampouris’s mandate, the foundation was ”on the lookout“ for an organization like Best Friends, says Cavey. After a member of the advisory board recommended the group, Bennett visited the foundation and briefed them on the program. Her compelling personality, extensive knowledge of the program, and enthusiasm ”sold the program“ to the foundation’s board. Best Friends was exactly what the board wanted to fund; it was entrepreneurial, creative, un-bureaucratic, pared-down, and effective.
Girls begin the Best Friends program in the fourth, fifth, or sixth grade, providing adult support at a time when the girls are beginning to make decisions that will shape the rest of their lives. The program continues through high school graduation.
The curriculum includes group discussions during the school day, in which the girls receive guidance on friendships, dating, decision-making, physical fitness, and drugs and alcohol. Each participant is mentored by a female member of her school faculty, with whom she meets weekly. Fitness and nutrition classes, community service, and cultural enrichment activities round out the program. An annual recognition ceremony honors the Best Friends girls, mentors, and parents in an elegant extravaganza.
The American Standard Foundation’s three $100,000 grants have made it possible to replicate the program in North Carolina, New Jersey, Texas, and California, as well as fund existing programs in Washington, D.C.
American Standard’s Cavey describes Best Friends as an organization that ”really does exactly what it set out to do.“ Indeed, while the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 30.3 percent of girls in grades 7–9 in the D.C. public schools have had sexual intercourse, only 6.7 percent of girls in the Best Friends program have. Even more remarkable, an internal study found 76 percent of Best Friends participants wanting to wait until marriage to have sex.
One of the program’s strengths is its success in involving girls in the program. The girls enjoy the program, and they want to participate in its activities. At the same time, in Robert Cavey’s words, Best Friends ”gets the elementals for a successful life to at-risk kids.“ As the Best Friends girls sing: ”Inside you know what to do to keep your dreams alive.“