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Westmoreland County school children could use some more 'Lunch Buddies'

| Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
Marilyn Forbes | for Trib Total Media
Skylar Rager adjusts the bracelet that she made for her lunch buddy, Quinn Cioffi. The pair have been sharing one lunch period weekly as part of a program offered through Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Laurel Region.

Sometimes just doing lunch can help out a child.

For many years, Big Brother Big Sisters of the Laurel Region has offered a school-based program for “Lunch Buddies.”

Adults spend time weekly with a child in a participating school, sharing lunch, ideas and time.

And more volunteers are needed.

“The one great thing about the Lunch Buddies program is that is does not require a big time commitment,” said Susan Dickson Houser, the school-based mentor coordinator for Big Brother Big Sisters of the Laurel Region. “It's only a few minutes every week and it can be a very positive experience for a child who can benefit from it.”

Adults find the program rewarding.

“Both my mother and my brother were ‘bigs' so I wanted to get involved,” Quinn Cioffi of Greensburg said. “I've been doing this since last year and I am glad that I got involved. It's fun, it doesn't take a lot of time, and I think it makes a big difference.”

Cioffi lunches with Skylar Rager, 9, a fourth-grade student at James H. Metzgar Elementary School in Salem. Greensburg Salem School District is one of the participating districts in the Lunch Buddies program.

Skylar said that she looks forward to the weekly “lunch dates,” when the pair shares more then a meal.

“We talk about we what did over the weekend and sometimes we read books,” Skylar said. “I like when she comes — she is like a big friend.”

Skylar said that she made Cioffi a few bracelets out of craft kits and she hopes to make a few more for her “big.”

Big Brother Big Sisters offers other school mentoring programs, such as after-school tutoring, along with traditional community-based programs where adults are paired with children for activities outside school and home.

“We have college students, community members, parents and a lot of others that are involved in the after-school tutoring,” Houser said. “Right now, we have about 60 to 70 adults that are in the community-based program. That requires that they spend two hours twice a month, which is a little more of a commitment.”

Some friendships endure far past the program. “Some of them keep in touch, which is really nice,” Houser said.

Big Brothers Big Sisters is looking for more adult volunteers for both programs.

About 100 are enrolled in the Lunch Buddies program.

“I can see that the kids love it,” Metzgar Principal Tina Federico said. “They really miss it if someone calls and says that they can't make it. They really look forward to having them come here, and I can see the difference that it makes. It's great positive interaction.”

Adult volunteers must go through an orientation and screening process. They must receive state background checks and clearances, which will paid for by the agency.

Houser makes the decision on the pairings and checks in both participants periodically to monitor the matches.

The one thing that she stresses is faithfulness. “These kids look forward to weekly visits so we ask that you be as consistent as you can be with them, especially the younger ones” Houser said.

Some schools enrolled with the program find many students who would be a great fit for the Lunch Buddies program, but not enough volunteers to match.

“I am new to the district and new to Big Brothers Big Sisters but I think that this is great,” Metzgar guidance counselor Jennifer Pritts said. “These adults are really good role models and they are someone for them to talk to. I would really like to see it grow. Our numbers here of students exceed the volunteers that they have. It's an excellent program and I would love to see more adults get involved.”

Other districts involved in the program include Jeannette, Uniontown Area and Greater Latrobe.

Houser said that participants don't have to be from the districts to get involved.

“If you want to become a Lunch Buddy, then you can go to any school that you like,” Houser said. “We need more volunteers. You can choose the school, you can choose the time, and you can make a big difference in the life of a child.”

Marilyn Forbes is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.