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Innovative program brings together school kids and lunchtime mentors

Bill DeYoung



Change is accomplished, the saying goes, by those who show up.

Thanks to an ongoing partnership between Raymond James Financial and the Pinellas County School System, things are changing – for the better – for thousands of area children.

The program is called Lunch Pals, and more than 100 schools – elementary schools, for the most part – participate. It’s a mentoring program, but unlike Big Brothers Big Sisters or other similar initiatives, it’s not a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week commitment of time, energy and emotion connection.

It’s just lunch.

“Mentoring, when it comes to what we’re doing, is having lunch with a child and being a friend and listening,” says Ron Diner, Raymond James’ Director of Strategic Community Partnerships. “Providing support, maybe making a suggestion or two.”

Ron Diner is Raymond James Director of Director of Strategic Community Partnerships.

Diner was the chief architect of Lunch Pals, and the first Raymond James staffer to give it a try, at Mount Vernon Elementary. “I don’t do anything special,” he explains. “I just have lunch with my kid.

“I do the same things I do when I’m having lunch with my own grandkids. Every once in a while things come up – they bring up things they may want to talk about.”

The effect, he insists, is psychological – for the mentor and the mentee as well. “You’re telling a kid that you care enough to come and have lunch every week,” he says. “What goes on is not as important as the fact that he’s got somebody he looks forward to seeing. That is the big deal.”

In its third season, the 2017-2018 school year, there were 61 Lunch Pal partner organizations – including, of course, Raymond James. After being vetted and trained in the ways and rules of the program, the “pals” are assigned to a school – near their place of employment – and a child to spent 30 minutes with, one day a week, in the school cafeteria, media center or other designated area. All they really have to do is show up.

“The school system has a tremendous number of kids that are living in motels, kids who are homeless, kids who are in single parent households, kids who have a parent who might be in jail – kids who didn’t have a sufficient mentor,” Diner explains. “A caring adult in their lives. Somebody that could give them some confidence. Inspire them a bit.”

Sure, he says, it would be a better arrangement if – like Big Brothers – it was more than that short slice of time. But there aren’t a lot of adults willing or able to mentor a youngster, on any level, after work or on weekends.

On the other hand, Diner says, “Having lunch with a kid, for half an hour a week, is meaningful. It has an impact. All the mentoring data says that this is valuable.

“We’ve surveyed the teachers, the parents, the kids and the principals, and the comments are overwhelmingly positive. If you’re a kid, maybe you’ve got two parents but they’re working all the time – you’ve got somebody who’s willing to be looking at you and caring about you. And the mentors feel the same.”

None of the participating partners – from Raymond James to John’s Hopkins All Children’s Hospital to Kobie Maketing to USF St. Petersburg – get a thing from being in Lunch Pals. There are no tax breaks, no public service brownie points, no reason to do it other than giving back to the community is the right thing to do.

Lunch Pals has a small staff operating inside Pinellas County Schools. Raymond James funds it.

Today, the program reaches more than 1,000 children. The goal for 2018-2019, Diner says, is 1,500. “There are 100,000 kids in the Pinellas County school system. And more than 50 percent of them are defined as ‘economically disadvantaged.’ That does not mean that every one of those kids doesn’t have caring adults in their lives, but there’s probably a better chance than not that there’s a lot of them who could use a caring adult.”

To that end, the program is actively recruiting new partners, organizations whose employees might benefit from volunteering 30 minutes per week to be that caring adult.

Currently, there are more women volunteers than men. “We need more men to do this,” points out Diner. “Men are important. More men of color would be valuable, too,” to resonate as strong role models.

Click here to find out more about the Lunch Pals program, and how to get involved.

“We’ve surveyed people who do this – ‘what do you think?’ ‘How do you feel about it?’ and things like that,” Diner says. “I’m telling you, they say they’re inspired by being the difference. It’s very easy to see, in most cases, you’re doing something good for a kid.”










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