Kofi Services

What if we helped young black children succeed by lifting up their personal strengths and honoring their cultural identity?

Photo of Paige Priolo
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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

Twenty-five years ago, young African American boys were falling through the achievement gap at an unprecedented rate in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Graduation rates were falling, and cultural identity was starting to lose hold in our community. To reverse this tide and bring equality to school success, Kofi Services was founded to serve the needs of African American boys and their families. Since then, the program has grown to include young girls, as well. “Kofi” is derived from a word meaning “child of growth” in Akan Asente, a Ghanian dialect. With a focus on early intervention, Kofi was established as a collaborative effort by the Wilder Foundation, Ramsey County Community Health Services, and the Saint Paul Public Schools to improve the positive functioning of elementary aged students.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • Black or African American (for example: African American, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, Somalian)



Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • Minnesota

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]

Saint Paul

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • Minnesota

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

Saint Paul

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

In the Saint Paul Public School district where Kofi operates, 78% of students are persons of color. More than 70% receive free or reduced cost lunch as a result of low socioeconomic status, 31% are English language learners, and 16% are in special education. In addition, a recent evaluation of Kofi students showed that 99% of students experienced at least one Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) and more than 50% experienced four or more. 60% of Kofi students witnessed domestic violence, and 34% experienced family conflict, threats of abuse, or abuse. These students, with all their strengths and potential, face tremendous barriers to academic and personal success. Despite successes within Kofi, African American youth in the district still lead in suspensions at 11.5%/year, are consistently below average in attendance indicators, and rank lowest in standardized testing.

In order to empower these students toward social, emotional, behavioral, and academic success, specialized support services need to be provided that consider the whole student and the whole family, and that honor their past and their future.

Kofi Services are culturally-specific, school and home based programs for African American youth that are designed to lift up students strengths and abilities and improve positive functioning. By connecting elementary school students and their families with cultural affirmation, rites of passage, mentorship, skill building and role modeling in partnership with parents and educators, Kofi seeks to ensure that all students receive the educational, social, and emotional supports that they need reach their full potential.

To achieve this, Kofi provides:

  • Mental health student support experiences (i.e., anger management, conflict resolution, problem solving, decision making, communication, and therapeutic leisure/recreation)
  • Meaningful engagement, support and role modeling for Kofi students (i.e., daily classroom and attendance check in, cultural/life skills education, administrative meetings with school about academics, behavior, crisis intervention)
  • Parenting skills support and outreach, information, referrals, and crisis assistance
  • Facilitation of positive parental involvement in school activities and learning opportunities

Kofi has a strong focus on providing trauma-informed care and reflecting cultural affirmation. Kofi staff are trained mental health service providers who are almost exclusively African American, many of whom grew up in the Saint Paul metro area. We aim to celebrate each child’s identity and uniqueness, and we aim to co-create a better future in partnership with our students, their parents, their families, our educators and schools, and the broader community.

In order to continually improve our services according to the evolving needs of our stakeholders, Kofi employs the use of multiple feedback mechanisms and change processes. These include regular student, parent, and educator satisfaction surveys as well as tracking of metrics on Kofi students' academic and behavioral performance. We aim to be responsive to this feedback and are continually taking on new approaches as indicated by our educational partners and our families, our staff's lived experience, and the context of our community. 

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Children who are differently abled
  • Low-income communities

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Child and Family Services
  • Education
  • Mental Health

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Scaling (the solution has passed the previous stages, and the next step will be growing its impact on a regional or global scale)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

Malik describes himself at age 8 with one word: “trouble.” He talked back at home, and he was unmotivated at school. Malik needed a positive role model, and he found one in his Kofi Counselor. Mr. Allen taught Malik that he didn’t have to be tough, that he could share his feelings. Malik began to think differently about himself and his actions; his behavior and his grades improved. “It was like a light bulb turned on,” says Malik’s mother. “A child who was getting F’s started to show up on the honor roll. A child who never wanted to get out of bed in the morning turned into a motivated young man.” After Kofi, Malik graduated high school with honors. When asked about his experience, Malik doesn’t hesitate: “Being in Kofi changed my life.”

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

In 2015, Kofi provided year-long, comprehensive school and home based services to 172 elementary students across eight urban Saint Paul public schools, a majority of which were male. Considering supportive services provided to siblings, parents, and other family members, Kofi reaches approximately 500-600 individual community members, primarily in the African American community, on a continual basis throughout each school year and through summer programming. In 2010, a comprehensive survey conducted by Wilder Research found the following impact outcomes for Kofi’s student body: - 80% of parents reported improved child behavior at school - 70% of parents said Kofi helped their child handle daily life - 100% of parents were hopeful that things would get better for their child; 91% were “very” hopeful Our impact is projected to grow as we enter new schools this year.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $500k - $1m

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

As a mental health service, Kofi is highly effective in supporting the majority of services through third-party billing once caseloads have been established. As the majority of Kofi students receive Medicaid/MA, they can access services at no cost. This is game changing, as these students typically cannot access high quality, culturally competent, trauma informed care through traditionally available service providers.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

While there are other cultural affirmation, mental health, and parenting support services, Kofi is unique. First, Kofi is all of these things. We are therapists, cultural liaisons, parent educators, and case managers that serve a family’s wraparound needs. Second, we are highly trained. Kofi staff are dedicated to quality and heavily certified in best practices. Third, we are ingrained in our community. Kofi has served St. Paul since 1991, with some staff serving their second generation. We are trusted partners and allies, committed to growing Kofi “until all the kids are well.”

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

Kofi continually seeks to improve upon its core service model of social-emotional learning, self-regulation, and mental health services for students and families. We are encouraged by a shifting focus toward training educators more deeply in crisis management and trauma informed care; toward the integration of multiple service types within school settings thanks to interprofessional education arrangements; and toward the development of modified school-based mental health service programs that aim to fully integrate therapists within the classroom setting.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Email

Program Design Clarity

At Kofi, primarily African American mental health professionals, practitioners, interns, and care coordinators serve African American K-8 students in 11 public schools. Staff meet with Kofi kids year-round in our school-based office for individual & group sessions to facilitate progress toward goals. Activities include mental health services (diagnostic assessments, talk/play therapy, skill training, role modeling), support services (in-home family therapy sessions, parent skill support), and special events (cultural experiences, graduation).

Community Leadership

Kofi's work is shaped entirely by our students. We conduct student surveys to close every session, comprised of three simple questions rated by smiley faces to be age-appropriate, to encourage our kids to be leaders in their own care. This approach builds confidence and leadership in our African American youth, one Kofi kid at a time. Our staff are activated, empathetic leaders too, working within and without our walls to better Kofi kids' lives.

Age of Children Impacted

  • 6 - 12
  • 12+

Spread Strategies

Over 25 years, we have finely tuned our core mental health model to near self-sustaining after initial set-up costs. If we are able to open new schools, we could independently verify their finances and impact from start-up to sustainability and publish our findings. With this evidence in hand, community leaders nationwide would be empowered to approach schools, win set-up funding, quickly reach sustainability, and spread services to kids in need.

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

We aim to re-center the way African American children view themselves and their community. By offering a culturally-rooted, strengths-based approach to mental health care and community engagement, we work to instill a sense of social-emotional wellbeing, confidence, competence, cultural consciousness, and hope in parents and kids for the endless possibilities their futures hold. Hope for the future is essential to overall wellbeing.

Leadership Story

Rudy grew up in a difficult home environment with few financial resources. Despite, or perhaps because of, these challenges, Rudy’s childhood left him deeply rooted to the African American community. He has provided mental health services at Wilder since 1980, leading Kofi Services since its inception in 1991 through all its evolutions – growing the program from 1 to 11 schools and expanding scope to include not only boys, but girls as well. Rudy works across race, class, generation and culture to bring understanding about the youth he serves, the lives they live, and the hardships they face.

Organization's Twitter Handle


Organization’s Facebook Page (URL)


Evaluation results

3 evaluations so far

1. Relevance: Does this project seem to help children (ages 0 to 12 years) develop a strong sense of self, belonging, and purpose?

5 - Yes, this is great! The project lays out a strong, compelling case for how its model nurtures children’s wellbeing. - 66.7%

4 - It seems like a good fit, and the model talks explicitly about children’s wellbeing. - 33.3%

3 - I think so. The project seems related to children’s wellbeing, but the logic is vague. - 0%

2 - Not sure. The project doesn’t have much to do with wellbeing, or it doesn’t give enough information. - 0%

1 - Nope, this project definitely doesn’t fit the challenge brief (e.g., It doesn’t help kids younger than 12, isn’t in the U.S., etc.) - 0%

2. Innovation: Does this project tackle children’s wellbeing from a new angle?

5 - I loved this! The project describes a novel model that addresses important cultural or systemic barriers. - 66.7%

4 - This is pretty cool. The project is addressing an important problem in a new or compelling way. - 0%

3 - I feel like there’s something there, but I want more details about what makes it distinctive. - 33.3%

2 - It’s a good project, but I’ve seen others like it before. - 0%

1 - It was confusing or hard to tell what it made it different. - 0%

3. Social Impact: What is this project’s potential for creating positive social impact?

5 - Lots of potential. This project is achieving impressive results, and it’s growing quickly. It could absolutely inspire changes in the ways we approach caring for kids nationally, across sectors (e.g. childcare, healthcare, education). - 66.7%

4 - Pretty good potential. This project demonstrates significant positive impact so far, and it could scale regionally or nationally one day and fundamentally change how a system operates (e.g. childcare, healthcare, education). - 0%

3 - Budding potential. This project is creating local impact, but it would take a few adjustments before it could scale. - 33.3%

2 - Some potential. This project demonstrates some initial positive impact, but it would require major changes before it could scale. - 0%

1 - Limited potential. This project has great intentions, but it looks like it does not include key drivers of a shift towards children’s wellbeing. - 0%

4. Overall, how do you feel about this idea?

5 - This idea rocked my world. It’s awesome! - 66.7%

4 - This idea seems really exciting. With a little more polishing, it’d be among my favorites. - 0%

3 - I think the idea is great, but it needs some work before it moves onto the next round. - 33.3%

2 - I liked it fine but preferred others. - 0%

1 - It didn’t make my heart beat faster. Needs significant revisions. - 0%

5. Offer some feedback. Where should this participant spend some time revising?

DEFINING THE PROBLEM. Make sure to articulate the root causes or main barriers of the social issue your project addresses. (Founding Story, Problem, Solution). - 50%

CLARITY OF MODEL. Make sure to mention (a.) the beneficiary, b) the main activities, and c) how those activities drive social impact. Keep it streamlined! - 100%

MARKETPLACE. Make sure to research other players in this space and articulate how this project is different. I didn’t get a complete sense of how this project compares to others. - 0%

IMPACT POTENTIAL. Make sure to use specific numbers to describe what your project has achieved so far! And consider how you might scale the model or its insights, through partnerships, trainings, or franchising. - 50%

WRITING STYLE. Try to stay concise and make it vivid. Avoid jargon. - 0%

Nothing stands out! I thought it was great. - 100%


Join the conversation:

Photo of Andre Wicks

Paige, thank you for sharing your idea.  I have a couple connections should you be interested.  First, I noticed that your idea is associated with the Amhurst Wilder Foundation.  I know the woman that started the Twin Cities Mobile Market.  If you know already know her, perhaps an introduction is in order to help brainstorm possibilities of addressing the food insecurity issues you described.

Second, in the PNW we have a host of experts who have conducted and published research on ACE's.  Chris Blodgett from Washington State University, in particular, who has extensive knowledge in this area and may be able to offer insight for how your community can address the affects of adverse childhood experiences.  Best,

Andre Wicks 

Photo of Paige Priolo

Andre - Thanks so much for your connection! Yes, we are so glad to be part of the Wilder Foundation and we are close with the Mobile Market folks! We also recently made some connections with our Family Supportive Housing Services program at Wilder and are now able to offer housing subsidies to our Kofi families that need them. 

I will have to ask our program team if they have a relationship with Chris or Washington State - I know they are always eager to learn of new research that can support their practice with the kiddos. 

Awesome to chat with you!
Paige @ Wilder