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Activating and orchestrating a veritable constellation of human and financial capital toward solving our community’s most difficult challenges is a task that few, if any, have truly mastered. Yet the Lunch Pals program has carved out a new model to accomplish this, reaching one child at a time for 30 minutes per week. Lunch Pals is an initiative which pairs a caring adult with one Pinellas County School District student to share lunch weekly. Since its inception some six years ago, it has grown to engage volunteers from over 130 local businesses and organizations in over 1,800 matches, and continues to grow even in the era of Covid.
Ron Diner, director of Strategic Community Partnerships for Raymond James Financial, was one of the key visionaries for the Lunch Pals program, activating a strong partnership between Raymond James, the Pinellas County School District, over one hundred companies and thousands of volunteers and children. Diner sees Lunch Pals as a model for addressing the very complex issues our community’s future face, particularly those related to socioeconomic advancement for children who have so much potential yet face multiple difficulties. He firmly believes in the potential of each child, and the potential that this simple program has in improving the vibrancy of our entire community.
Several years ago, you founded the Lunch Pals program to connect area business people with kids on their lunch breaks. Over the years, Lunch Pals has grown to match over 1,800 students and pals in the Pinellas public school system. How did this concept emerge, and what (if any) impact did your position with Raymond James have in helping its launch?
The Lunch Pals concept started about seven years ago when Michael Grego, the Superintendent of Pinellas County Schools met with St. Petersburg’s then-Mayor Foster to match business executives in the community with school principals. The idea was for the executives to meet regularly with the principals to discuss how they might help the principals with their responsibilities – with the emphasis was on what we could offer as business people to the principals.
I got wind of the program and was interested in Raymond James participating, and I was interested in personally being involved. Raymond James was partnered with Mount Vernon Elementary School. When I met with the principal, I asked her what were her greatest challenges, and where we could help. I knew what our resources and expertise were, but I’m not a principal: we spent a good amount of time looking to match our skills with her needs.
Peggy shared that virtually all of the elementary schools in Pinellas are large, with over 400 kids apiece, and that her school was a transition school. She had a lot of kids bussed into the school, with more than you’d expect in homeless situations or living in motels. Some were living with single parents, others came from group homes. We quickly realized that the best thing that we could do was to get people from Raymond James to come to Mt. Vernon and have lunch once a week with a child.
I really loved this idea, and still do. It got me thinking about the importance of having an additional caring adult in these kids’ lives. In addition to the kids with other challenges, the school also has a great number of kids who are economically disadvantaged: even in the two-parent households, there’s often just not enough time, parents are busy. It’s important to have another caring adult to regularly connect with these kids.
We started a partnership with Raymond James employees and Mount Vernon, and over the next two years we had 90 pal matches, including me. At that point, I met with Superintendent Grego, and asked him “What else can we do?” he said, you know Mt. Vernon isn’t the only school with kids who come to school with great challenges in their lives. (Pinellas County Schools has over 100,000 students, and more than 50% are economically disadvantaged.) Can you find other organizations, with other people, to meet the needs of other schools?”
We then created a formal memorandum of understanding with Pinellas County Schools to work together to grow the number of people who would be pals with children in the schools. At the same time I turned over my business responsibilities to someone else, and with the support of Tom James and Paul Reilly, stayed on at Raymond James with a fully dedicated role working on our partnership efforts. We put a name to it – Lunch Pals – which keeps it light. Even though our pals are actually regular mentors in these kids’ lives, you’re just a pal with a kid over lunch, which feels less ominous.
This is the 6th year of the program, Each year, Raymond James, Tom James and I have funded a total of $70-90k to help support the program and pay for some of the infrastructure to make it happen – marketing, supplies, some extra administrative help in the home office, and someone to call on new business that might like to participate.
For the 2019-2020 school year our goal was to reach 2,000 students. We were at over 1,800 in March, and based on the interest level we would have reached our goal of 2,000, if school had not closed early.
You’re a longtime Pinellas resident with a long leadership track in the corporate and nonprofit realm. How has your personal and professional experience played a role in the work that you’re doing here in Tampa Bay in the social impact space?
My professional experience helped Lunch Pals reach its current success, particularly in in terms of getting other organizations to participate. Expanding our reach has the additional benefit that these Pals further spread the word through their personal networks, whether that be through church, synagogue, the police force, big and small businesses and so forth. In terms of my specific professional experience, my career at Raymond James, founding and running Raymond James Tax Credit Funds, focused me on developing new business, calling on potential new partners. This was an easy skill set to transfer to Lunch Pals.
Personally, I have always believed that if we want to build a better world, truly repair the world, I don’t know what else you could do that could be better than helping a child reach his full potential. Lunch Pals reaches so many children – who had nothing to do with the situation they in which they find themselves.
What do you think it will take to change the social issues we are facing today, here in our local area and nationwide?
People often ask if Lunch Pals is making a difference. The answer is yes – Lunch Pals is overwhelmingly impactful. Virtually nobody makes it alone. And the data shows mentoring can keep kids away from drugs, keep them in school, and keep them showing up on time and ready to learn. We’ve surveyed the teachers, parents, and the results are extremely positive. And the people who participate are profoundly impacted.
Beyond our on-the-ground perspective, the goal of Lunch Pals is the same as the vision that Pinellas Schools has laid out, and is a comparable vision for many organizations that are working with children. We want all our children to reach their full potential, and (as relates to school) graduate on time and go on to some form of post-secondary education or training. We want them on the right steps toward economic success.
Meeting these goals will tackle a host of social issues. First and foremost, we’re helping children who need us most. These kids didn’t choose the situations in which the find themselves. Isn’t helping them the right thing to do? Secondly, helping these kids succeed benefits all of us on a community-wide perspective: if these kids are all successful it improves the vitality of our entire community, and we have holistically tackled the most difficult social issues. We’re supporting a generation of future taxpayers and productive community members.
What role do you feel that collaboration across nonprofits and corporations plays in order to see a larger impact?
When I think about collaborations across different community groups, I think about how we can improve vibrancy — including economic vibrancy — by thinking of our nation as “United States Inc.” The way I look at it, everyone is on the payroll. Whether you are productive or not, we still pay for your health care (no one is turned away from the emergency rooms) and we make sure people have food – no one is starving to death. Thus, if “United States Inc.” was your business, wouldn’t you try to figure out how to help everyone to become productive as possible? It’s a benefit to everybody, individually and as a society. Instead of us paying for unproductive members of our team, we would have more members making us more productive.
Lunch Pals has grown to a collaboration of over 130 community organizations and businesses that have Pals in the schools. This broad-reaching level of collective impact has gained our program national recognition, and twice I’ve been proud to represent us for an award from the national Mentor organization.
How has Covid-19 affected the work that Lunch Pals does, and where have you seen positive change among the challenges?
Like almost everything else, Lunch Pals is now virtual. While not as good as lunch in person, Zoom still allows us to connect, and its easier than ever – no traveling. It’s all about just showing up for the kids – what you “do” in your time together is secondary. At least until the 2020-21 second semester, Lunch Pals will continue operating virtually, and Pinellas County Schools is posting activity ideas each week on lunchpals.org, so our Pals can get some inspiration on what they might want to do with their student.
And now, with Covid-19, heightened awareness of racial injustice, and economic uncertainty, children are overwhelmed socially and emotionally, especially those living in poverty. There has never been a time when kids need a Lunch Pal as much as they do now.
How can people get involved with Lunch Pals and learn more about its impact on our community?
Visit lunchpals.org to get all the information and sign up for a virtual workshop. After background checks, the school system connects you to a child. Because it’s virtual, anyone can be a Pal from anywhere. This is a great, easy opportunity to really improve the vitality of our community and anyone can do this. It’s just 30 minutes once a week over a child’s lunchtime at school. And even though we have so many organizations partners, the Lunch Pals program is open to all: you need not be an employee of one of our partner organizations to be a Lunch Pal.
I’ve thought often about how important this program is, and I see it in my own three, local grandchildren (I have three more in Brooklyn). These are kids who are fortunate to have parents and grantparents and many involved adults locally, and I see them several times throughout the week. And yet Jacob, my oldest, asked me one week after seeing me for three days in a row, “Grandpa, are you having lunch with me at school this week?” When you’ve got a kid who sees you all the time, and still wants to have lunch, it makes me realize what it’s like for a kid who doesn’t get such contact, and understand how valuable it is for that child.
Lunch Pals is all about being a friend to a child who needs a friend. Our Pals are good listeners, thinking about what’s of interest to a child. Our Pals make them feel positive about themselves over the course of 30 minutes. What we do is pretty simple: we show up for our kids, and the rest takes care of itself.