Pinellas County Schools (PCS) is looking for help from the local business community and area organizations to make a difference in a child’s life by becoming a Lunch Pal and promoting the program.
Lunch Pals is a PCS mentoring program whose mission is to provide every child with someone who cares. Lunch Pals volunteers meet with their students for 30 minutes one day each week during the student’s lunch break. Those interested in becoming a Lunch Pal can join at any time, although the expectation is that mentors meet with their students on the scheduled day and time for the remainder of the school year.
The program’s goals include supporting social and emotional development, academic gains, improving school attendance and creating a memorable experience for the Lunch Pals and their students. At last Wednesday’s 1 Million Cups event, project coordinator Debra Buschman led a presentation on the importance of the Lunch Pals program to area business leaders.
“It’s the highlight of their week,” said Buschman of what the program means to area students. “We have thousands of students in need of mentors.”
Pinellas County is home to the eighth largest school district in Florida, and the 27th largest nationally. Buschman said that before Covid, Pinellas enrolled over 100,000 students. Last year, that number was down to just over 80,000.
Buschman noted that over 4,200 students experience homelessness, and over 60% of the student body is economically disadvantaged, meaning they qualify for free and reduced lunch.
Buschman explained that when she was in 10th grade, she found herself at a crossroads in her young life. She spent most of the school year skipping class and found herself in the principal’s office. The principal took a sheet of paper, crumpled it up and threw it in the trash. He told her that was her life’s path unless she made a change.
That principal’s analogy impacted Buschman, and not only did she refocus her life, but she dedicated it to helping other children in similar situations.
“I also realized that if I had a trusted adult in my life, I don’t think I would’ve made the decisions I was making at that point,” she said.
Buschman offered graduation statistics to illustrate the value of having a positive role model in a student’s life. Pinellas County’s graduation rate is 91.5%, the highest in the region. As part of the Take Stock in Children scholarship program, students must participate in 15 mentorship sessions per year.
The graduation rate for participants in the Take Stock in Children program is 95%. Buschman stated the graduation rate for at-risk students not involved in mentoring programs is just 57%.
“So, students who do participate in a mentoring program, we see increased grades in school and increased graduation rates, as well,” she said.
A mentor, Buschman said, is someone who offers encouragement and positively influences a child’s life. She said the main requirements are good listening skills and the ability to show up consistently. PCS tries to match mentors with a student in a school close to where they live or work, and Lunch Pals have the option to mentor virtually or in person.
After registering, applicants must attend a mentoring workshop and choose the school and grade level they prefer. Lunch Pals can mentor students from kindergarten through 12th grade, and they can also stay with the same child as they move through grade levels.
“Typically, you’ll have a conversation with that student and ask them if they would like to continue meeting next year with you,” said Buschman. “Usually, they say yes.”
Buschman said the greatest need is for male mentors, especially men of color. She said about 80% of Lunch Pals are female, and there are male students on a waiting list because they are waiting on a male mentor.
Buschman credited a lack of publicity and understanding the program’s simplicity for the shortage of male mentors.
“It’s showing up, having lunch with a student and being a good listener,” she said.
With the adoption of virtual mentoring, Lunch Pals can make a difference in a child’s life from home, the office or while they are away traveling. Buschman said one of the students she mentors attends Palm Harbor University High School, quite a distance from her office in Largo. Buschman mentors the student virtually three weeks out of the month and personally eats lunch with her the remaining week.
While mentoring virtually provides a respite for traveling to Palm Harbor – and the student is happy to see her either way – Buschman noted the elevated enthusiasm when they sit down for lunch together.
“When you go in person, just their countenance changes sometimes,” she said. “They’re just even more excited.”
Buschman said she needs the business community’s help to ensure Lunch Pals’ success. She wants local leaders to become partners of the program and share the opportunity with their staff, employees and colleagues.
Lunch Pals’ creates fliers and messaging for organizations to share on their websites and social media accounts. Buschman also hopes business leaders offer employees accommodations to participate in the program.
“What a lot of these students need is just an additional, caring adult to consistently show up,” she said.
For more information on Lunch Pals, visit the website here.