Clemons brings leadership and vision to the city’s youth advocacy community, guided by his personal struggles and professional triumph.
New York City – Friends of the Children, a national nonprofit that pairs children who face multiple systemic obstacles with a salaried, professional mentor, called a Friend, for 12+ years, announced today that Gary Clemons will serve as the new executive director of the Friends of the Children–New York chapter. A New Jersey native with more than 20 years of national and local nonprofit experience, Clemons will bring new vision, leadership and energy to the 18-year-old organization, as well as the city’s youth advocacy community.
“We could not be more pleased that Gary will be taking the helm of our New York chapter at such a pivotal moment,” said Terri Sorensen, national president of Friends of the Children. “He is a truly beloved figure in the Friends of the Children community. His leadership skills and passion for empowering communities and the youth we serve will be absolutely essential to the continued success in the chapter. He will also be a critical network leader as we rapidly expand nationally.”
Clemons, age 41, joined Friends of the Children in 2008 as a Friend in the founding Portland, Ore., chapter and quickly worked his way up, becoming a powerful force in the youth advocacy community. In 2014, he joined the national Friends of the Children team as chief program officer, overseeing the national program model, and helping to raise funds to grow the network from 8 to 15 chapters in just three years.
“I am a big believer in thinking globally and acting locally,” said Clemons. “I will miss the Portland Friends community I have grown to love over the past ten years, but I am deeply grateful for this opportunity to lead the New York chapter. I look forward to getting back home to the east coast, where I can collaborate with and learn from key partners to build a stronger community for the youth we serve.”
Clemons joins the New York chapter, which has been in transition since 2017 after the previous executive director passed away unexpectedly. Founded in 2000, and with offices in Harlem and the South Bronx, Friends of the Children–New York employs 18 Friends and has an engaged board of directors with exceptional leadership experience.
Clemons’ personal story of struggle and triumph began when he was born in Tinton Falls, N.J., where he was separated from his mother when he was just five years old. Struggling to find himself as a young teen, Clemons moved to the Inglewood neighborhood of L.A. to be with his mother and then quickly became involved in gangs.
In high school, he was introduced a track coach who helped change his path. His story of escaping gangs and violence to play football was the subject of a Los Angeles Times article in 1995.
Despite becoming a father at age 19 to a visually impaired daughter, Clemons went to college and earned a bachelor’s degree from Portland State University. After finding himself homeless—and once again defeated—at age 24, Clemons sold his PlayStation, bought a dog and began training guide dogs for the blind. Clemons stumbled upon Friends of the Children after buying a home in the same Northeast Portland neighborhood where the organization is headquartered.
“I could have easily been one of the youth in the Friends of the Children program,” said Clemons. “I left the east coast as a young teen, hurt and struggling to find myself. But with the help of caring adults, like my track coach, Coach Biggs and my family, I overcame great odds. I have learned to be vulnerable about my story to show youth success is not always a straight line.”
A passionate advocate for empowering marginalized communities, Clemons will work to raise awareness about Friends of the Children’s successful early intervention and prevention model, which has shown particularly remarkable results with children impacted by foster care and mass incarceration. He will also focus on building bridges with community partners to address issues facing the youth they serve, including gentrification and violence.
"The board of Friends of the Children–New York is very excited to have Gary with us, and returning home, to lead the chapter," said Joan Rosenthal, board chair of the Friends of the Children–New York chapter. "We love his energy and strong commitment, as well as his unsurpassed experience. We feel confident that Gary will take our important work and the organization here in New York to the next level."
Friends of the Children was recently profiled in The Chronicle of Social Change for the work they are doing in Los Angeles and around the country, and they are being featured in a national public television documentary series called The Visionaries, which is airing this spring.