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'Lunch pals' program seeks mentors from local businesses to help in 29 Pinellas schools

Tom James is executive chairman of Raymond James.
Tom James is executive chairman of Raymond James.
Published Feb. 25, 2016

Three years ago, Raymond James Financial partnered with Mount Vernon Elementary in St. Petersburg and asked what its biggest needs were. The resounding answer: Mentors.

One hundred Raymond James employees currently spend a half hour of their lunch break once a week with a Mount Vernon student.

"You talk, you listen," said Ron Diner, director of strategic community partnerships at Raymond James, who currently mentors two boys. "They go away every week with a smile on their face."

Now, Raymond James is inviting staffs of other businesses, colleges and government agencies to participate in a new volunteering program called "Lunch Pals" that would serve 29 schools in Pinellas County identified as in need of mentors. The idea is that an organization would adopt one of these schools in close proximity and interested employees would spend a half hour with a student — a convenient way for employees to volunteer without taking extra time off.

A summit held Tuesday morning featured Raymond James Financial executive chairman Tom James, Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, among others. About 100 people were in attendance.

"It's one way the community can get involved individually with students," Grego said, adding that students with mentors are more likely to have success.

Raymond James is funding the salary of the district's new Lunch Pal coordinator, Susan Sneck, who is charged with pairing schools and organizations. Any organization that volunteers will also receive an assessment measuring academics, attendance and behavioral results from their partner school twice a year.

"We can't expect the schools to do this alone," Diner said. "It takes a partnership. It's a great way for business communities and other organizations to give back."

A few organizations have already signed on, including Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, Cox Media, Eckerd College, Pinellas County Government, Stetson University College of Law, St. Petersburg College, University of South Florida St. Petersburg and the city of Dunedin.

Bayfront Health St. Petersburg marketing coordinator David Gilchrist said he was moved by the speakers at the summit, especially a former mentee who is now a mentor. Bayfront Health is now partnered with John Hopkins Middle and about 20 employees have expressed interest in volunteering so far.

"You think you're giving something back but you yourself get something good out of it," he said. "It's a feel-good type thing. Sometimes it gives you new motivation in your job."

Contact Colleen Wright at cwright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright on Twitter.

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