The friends and donors of Circle of Friends in Sisters stepped up to the tune of $115,000, last Thursday night at the organization’s annual fund raising dinner.

Like many nonprofit organizations, Circle of Friends relies on a combination of grants and donations to fulfill its mission of making a difference in the lives of children right here in Sisters. Money raised at the fundraiser goes toward programs and operational expenses. The community donations included both the facility and the dinner for nearly 200 guests, from Five Pine Conference Center and Three Creeks Brewing, respectively.

The Circle formed eight years ago with just two kids in the program. Now there are 40, and a waiting list of 12 to 15 in need of mentors. At the fundraiser, Executive Director Nicky Merritt told the story of one kiddo who, when he first joined, wouldn’t make eye contact with anyone. It took his mentor and mom half an hour just to get him into the building for Lego robotics. But just three weeks ago, this same boy came running into the clubhouse with two friends, super excited. “When I looked down from the balcony, there he was, one of three little boys, dancing! Three years ago, we couldn’t look him in the eye, and now he’s dancing!”

“Many of our mentors have been here seven or eight years,” Merritt said. “Thank you for sticking around.” She also thanked the volunteers, parents, community partners, and board members “who are part of the circle that makes life better.”

“Tonight is about our future,” Merritt said, “about how we’re going to reach the kids we can’t reach, who need our program and activities.”

Developing social skills, interacting with other kids and adults, is one of the primary goals for Circle of Friends. It’s a byproduct of activities like cooking, STEM, homework help, game nights, field trips, summer camps, and other supervised adventures.

Circle of Friends, Sisters, was inspired by Friends of the Children. One important difference is volunteer mentors in Sisters, whereas Friends of the Children chapters typically employ paid mentors.

Eric Gabrielson, Chief Expansion Officer of Friends of the Children, is the son of Carolyn Gabrielson, secretary of the Circle of Friends board in Sisters. Carolyn was instrumental in securing a capital grant of $75,000 from the Murdoch Trust, an announcement made at the conclusion of Thursday’s event.

The event featured a silent auction with nearly 50 items contributed by Sisters residents and businesses. This was followed by a buffet and live auction, raising $51,000 from a fishing trip, vacation stays at Black Butte Ranch and a luxury spot on the Oregon Coast, a wine tour, private dinners with Founders Duncan and Cindy Campbell, and last but not least, an African safari photo tour.

Emcee and Board Chair Carol Zosel said “We give because we have more money than most, and we know these kids deserve the opportunity.” Then she introduced a video produced by Zion Pictures. Eight-year-old Olivia is the star of this short movie. She’s the daughter of parents who are drug addicted, and now serving time in jail. At age 56, Olivia’s grandmother, Debra, adopted Olivia and her two siblings.

Annette is Olivia’s mentor. “When I tell Olivia that Annette is picking her up after school, she says ‘Oh, Boy!’” Debra says, and it’s so real. “On those days when I pick her up, I drive to school and wait until she gets out,” Annette says. “Then we go to the clubhouse.”

“I like coming here,” Olivia says in the video, while making blue and purple slime. “It feels pretty special.” But as she learned how to create textured dough from cornstarch, water, and food coloring, she was also learning how to interact with other kids and with the adult friends around her. “I don’t know how to say thank you enough,” Grandmother Debra said in the video.

As the evening wound down, the generous donors left Five Pine Conference Center bearing hand-made bookmarks from the children, and tiny succulent plants from the centerpieces. Those who could gave generously from their wallets. But everyone gave from their hearts.