As Duncan Campbell drives his red Chevy Suburban around a run-down neighborhood on Portland, Ore.'s northeast side, he cheerfully waves to strangers and is greeted by the same puzzled expression. The look seems to ask, "What's this crazy, wealthy-looking guy doing here?" The perplexed locals might be surprised to learn that for all his J. Crew aura, Campbell knows how to navigate these mean streets better than most. He grew up here, living in poverty, neglected by his alcoholic parents. Yet he survived, even prospered. And now he wants to help others—kids with similar backgrounds—do the same.

"I believe you can change almost anyone's life," says Campbell, 55. In 1993, with $2 million of his own money, he founded Friends of the Children, a nonprofit organization that pairs troubled first graders—those who've suffered from situations including poverty, drug-addicted parents, neglect or sexual abuse—with full-time, paid mentors who meet with them several times a week until they finish high school. "Duncan sees that child in himself—it's still with him," says Gary Walker, president of a Philadelphia-based social-research organization that studied Friends for nine months. "I think it's a unique, substantively sound program that has a chance to have a terrific payoff."

There were no such helping hands around when Campbell and his older half brother Pete Hall, now 60 and the co-owner of a building-supply business, were growing up. Their parents, both alcoholics, pretty much left the boys to fend for themselves; once, at age 3, Campbell was found by police wandering around the neighborhood in the middle of the night looking for his folks. (Campbell's father, Joe, worked off and on in construction when he could hold a job and did jail stints for writing bad checks; his mother, Fern, worked as a secretary and later as a maid, but the family spent years on welfare.) "I don't think I ever really had a sense of hope, other than I wanted to be so different from my parents," Campbell says. "And I wanted it so bad that it encouraged me."

By his mid—40s Campbell seemed to have it all: a law degree from the University of Oregon, a booming timber-investment business, a solid second marriage, three children of his own. (Son Jeff—from Campbell's marriage to his childhood sweetheart, which ended in divorce in 1975—is now 31 and a Portland investment manager. Campbell and wife Cindy Douglass, 46, a CPA he married in 1976, have two children: Annie, 19, a sophomore at New York University, and son Courtney, 17.) And yet he couldn't shake the feeling that something was missing. Campbell's mind kept drifting back to his own youth—how could he prevent other kids from having the same experience?

The answer Campbell came up with was Friends, which he started with profits from the 1989 sale of his investment firm, a company he continues to run. Friends' mission: to match the hard cases—kids other charities have rejected—with mentors who commit to staying for five years and who are paid a teacher's starting salary (around $26,000). Today, Friends helps 219 children and employs 29 mentors in Portland. The group also has a branch in Washington, D.C., and is expanding to three other cities, including Seattle, this fall. "It's a phenomenal program," says Rachel Belcher, 33, a first-grade teacher at Portland's Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, 11 of whose students participate. "When a child gets chosen, you think, 'Thank God, this child might have a chance.' "

One of those children is 11-year-old Regis Kindred, a precocious fifth grader. He was paired with mentor James Broadous II, 31, four years ago. "I feel I'm doing better in school—I don't get in trouble as much," says Regis, an aspiring basketball player. "James teaches me things I'm not supposed to do, like steal or get in fights." Regis has also . learned, he says, from Campbell's example of overcoming a troubled childhood: "That just shows you, if you work hard, you can do anything you want."

These days Campbell divides his time between Friends' headquarters—an old school building renovated by the program last year, less than a mile from his former neighborhood—and his plush downtown office. But those close to him say they know where his true passion lies. "There isn't a day that he doesn't walk through the Friends building and feel an incredible sense of accomplishment," says daughter Annie. "I definitely think Friends is his ultimate success."

Alexandra Hardy in Portland