City schools will be back in session in less than a month — not something I have to worry too much about anymore, as I have one graduated from college and in the workforce and the other in college.
But school getting back in session will return me to one of my favorite forms of volunteering — as a Lunch Buddy, a program sponsored by The Future Begins Today. The program was established in the early 1990s to provide a community connection to Troy students who may benefit from temporary or ongoing intervention and mentorship.
I, along with my good friend and co-worker David Fong, have been Lunch Buddies for upward of a decade now, mentoring young children from Heywood Elementary, which is also our business partner.
I can still vividly remember my first day with my first Lunch Buddy. She was shy and nervous and didn’t know what to expect of the encounter. I was kind of the same. We asked each other questions, and month by month, learned about each other.
My first Lunch Buddy needed some guidance; that’s why I was asked to be there. She had a hard home life, and spent a lot of the time she should have spent being a kid being a babysitter to her younger siblings. She shared with me many times her struggles and my heart broke for her.
And so a journey of many years began.
You see, the Lunch Buddy program can be what you make of it — as much as you have to offer the child who needs that extra little effort. It can be as easy as once a month for an hour over cafeteria tacos — that’s all it takes. For me, I had two small children at home — playing soccer, getting involved in things, needing my attention. But there was just something about this girl, my first Lunch Buddy. No matter what her circumstances, she always had a smile on her face and a positive attitude. She was always happy. But how?
Soon, the once-a-month lunches turned into weekly outings with my family with her mom’s approval. She attended dinners, family functions, soccer games. She really was always smiling, happy to just be with my family — a family. She came to our home, she became part of our family. I loved this girl like my own. I was willing to make her my own.
And then she was gone.
When my daughter and I went to pick her up from her apartment for a swim date, no one answered the door. We had made plans — she never forgot. I found the building manager and asked. He said they moved out the day before. She was really gone.
Because of limitations within the schools to release personal information, I lost contact with her. My heart was broken again for her.
I moved on, and have had several other Lunch Buddies that I have mentored. I still feel that I am making a difference, whether it’s just talking something out over a game of Trouble, or helping them with a subject they are struggling with.
But I never forgot her — my first Lunch Buddy.
When I spoke so fondly of my first Lunch Buddy to another co-worker, Belinda, she went on a mission to find her. Which she did. We tracked her down on Facebook and I sent her a private message. She messaged me back, friended me on Facebook, and we continued to fill in the blanks about each other’s lives since we were separated. Her life didn’t get much easier after we lost touch, maybe even harder. But as I knew she would, she rose above. She graduated from college and now has children of her own. From what I can tell, she is a doting mom who puts her children first — something she never had.
She thanked me for my guidance, for the glimpse of a normal life she had when she was able to spend time with my family. She said I’d made a lasting impression on her life. I couldn’t have asked for more. My job was done.
We continue to stay in touch. I know she’s safe and happy, which propels me to be an even better Lunch Buddy to my present one.
More than 140 Troy students met with a Lunch Buddy last year — people from all walks of life — retirees, business people, even old journalists. It’s simple to sign up, and Lunch Buddies are being recruited right now through Aug. 31 by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.
Give these kids a chance. What you might learn is you need them as much — or more — than they need you.
Give it a try, you won’t regret it, I promise.
Melody Vallieu is the editor of the Troy Daily News and Piqua Daily Call. Reach her at (937) 552-2131 or email@example.com.