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Gabbi Palmer and Terry Busch have been lunch buddies for three years.

Budding buddies

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Alexandria, 56308
Echo Press
(320) 763-3258 customer support
Alexandria Minnesota 225 7th Ave E
P.O. Box 549
56308

A couple hours a month. That's all it takes to make a difference.

Being part of the Lunch Buddy program in Alexandria School District 206 (see related sidebar) doesn't just help a child - it fosters friendships, encouragement and hope. And it nurtures and supports the unfolding of a child's potential.

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The granddaughter I don't have

Terry Busch, a retired Alexandria resident, used to spend a lot of time in the schools. But with her children grown and gone, she craved contact with children again.

As soon as she had the time to commit, she joined the Lunch Buddy program.

"Some of those children really need someone, an adult that's not going to criticize or do the heavy-duty discipline," Busch said. "When you're the lunch buddy, you can enjoy the time together without having to do any of the tough stuff."

She and her buddy, Gabbi Palmer, now a 4th grader at Carlos Elementary School, started meeting when Palmer was in 2nd grade.

"I didn't have a lot of friends," Palmer said of why she wanted to join the program three years ago. "I thought it would be fun to have a lunch buddy."

Although lunch buddies are only committed to meeting twice a month at school, Busch and Palmer usually meet at least three times a month. They eat lunch together, and during recess they play cribbage, work on craft projects and update a scrapbook they are making that chronicles their lunch buddy experience. Occasionally, they also meet outside of school.

Palmer says the program has helped her overcome her shyness. And with a smile lighting up her eyes, she said, "It makes me feel special."

Palmer is not the only one who has benefited from being a lunch buddy. Busch has reaped just as many rewards.

"It's amazing to watch these kids grow," she concluded. "We look forward to spending time together. She became that granddaughter that I don't have."

A positive influence

Erik Willert has always enjoyed being around children. A young, single man with no children of his own, he wanted to help out the youth in the Alexandria area. So he became a Lunch Buddy.

"I wanted to get involved and try to give back to the community a little bit," he said.

Three years ago he was paired up with Cody Betterman, now a 6th grader at Lincoln Elementary School.

"He's fun and cool," Betterman said of Willert. "I wanted a lunch buddy because it's an adult I can talk to about stuff."

Betterman and Willert share an interest in sports, which gave them something in common and got the friendship off to a good start. They meet every other Friday.

"It makes me look forward to every other Friday," Betterman said. "It makes me feel better because I know there's someone to talk to at school about what's going on."

The pair also meet on occasion outside of school. They have gone fishing, out to eat, and they like to play tennis together.

Willert's experience being a lunch buddy has been so positive that several of his co-workers have gotten on board and joined in.

"I do think it's a very worthwhile thing," Willert concluded. "Overall, it's the self-satisfaction of being able to help a student; being able to befriend them and give them more self-confidence. And ideally, try to have a positive influence on their life."

About lunch buddies

A lunch buddy is a caring person willing to commit at least two hours a month to share food, fun and friendship with a student in kindergarten through 6th grade.

The program brings adult mentors into the schools to have lunch with a child twice a month during the school year. The student and adult eat lunch together in a quiet school location that enhances conversation. After lunch they either play a game or work on an indoor project during recess.

The adult's commitment is one year, with the potential to continue the match if both adult and student are interested.

Lunch buddies are welcome at each of the District 206 elementary schools. Currently, there are 48 lunch buddy matches.

But there are also 18 referred students waiting for a buddy of their own. By volunteering a few hours each month, an ordinary person can do the extraordinary by giving extra time and attention to a child.

National Mentoring Month

January is National Mentoring Month. This campaign acknowledges the importance of mentors, seeks to recruit additional new mentors for this volunteer role and thanks current mentors.

This year's theme is "Expand your universe, mentor a child." As a highlight of National Mentoring Month, "Thank your mentor" day will be celebrated on January 22.

Alexandria School District 206 offers students the following mentor program opportunities.

• Lunch Buddies - a school-based mentoring program or an adult paired with a child in grades kindergarten through 6.

• Match 2 Mentor - a community-based program with an adult and a student in grades 5 to 12.

• Student Match - A community-based program that pairs a high school student with a child in grades 1 to 6.

• Cross-age Tutors - A community-based program that pairs a high school student with a child who needs help academically.

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