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Lunch Buddies show they care

| Friday, Oct. 31, 2003

Contrary to the dire warnings sounded by the legendary Professor Harold Hill about the evils of playing pool, Gary P. Caruso thinks pool is a fine activity for boys.

In fact, the Westmoreland County judge, who learned the game decades ago in his native Monessen, looks forward to demonstrating his skill with a cue to a 15-year-old boy.

He does so each week as part of the Lunch Buddy Program, which matches attorneys with boys and girls at the YMCA Emergency Youth Shelter in Greensburg.

The mentoring program, which began in July, was developed by Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Laurel Region, in conjunction with the shelter and the Westmoreland Bar Association.

Caruso and other members of the legal profession spend a lunch hour each week talking with youngsters awaiting a court-ordered permanent placement -- perhaps in a group home, a treatment facility, a foster home or their own family's residence.

They do more, of course, than just play pool.

"We talk small-talk -- sports and school," said Caruso, who isn't a juvenile court judge, so he doesn't oversee the case of any youngster at the shelter. He's there strictly as a mentor and a role model.

"If it helps them in the least little bit to change their attitude," then it's worthwhile, Caruso said.

The judge's buddy -- identified only as Don -- looks forward to Caruso's weekly visits.

"I think it is cool, 'cause I don't get any visitors at all," he said.

Diane Krivoniak, executive director of the bar association and and one of eight female mentors in the program, said she talks about school with her buddy, and chats about the girl's interests and where she wants to go in life.

The program was sparked by a discussion of the legal system at a Pennsylvania Futures Commission on Justice meeting at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, she said.

"Over and over again, the speakers said, 'You've got to reach out and touch a child's life to make a difference,'" Krivoniak recalled.

Fortunately, Caruso, Krivoniak and other volunteers decided to do so.

Brenda Waltenbaugh, the shelter's director, said the youngsters are impressed that professional people with busy schedules show interest in them.

Shelter officials want to expand the program so mentors can join programs with their buddies at the YMCA gymnasium. Waltenbaugh hopes that will increase the number of attorneys who become mentors.

It's a great idea that can only help youngsters decide to lead worthwhile lives.

But it only works because people like Caruso are willing to donate their time and talent to the project.

And for that we salute them.

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