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School mentoring program with Raymond James grows into the hundreds

Ron Diner helped create the Lunch Pals program, which pairs at-risk students with volunteers.
Ron Diner helped create the Lunch Pals program, which pairs at-risk students with volunteers.
Published Apr. 7, 2017

When Raymond James Financial partnered with Mount Vernon Elementary School in the 2014-15 school year, Ron Diner, director of strategic community partnerships at the investment firm, found that what the school needed most was mentors — just people to spend time with students who were at-risk because of challenges in their lives outside of school. So Raymond James helped launch the Lunch Pals program, in which volunteers commit to once-a-week lunches with Mount Vernon students, starting with 47 Raymond James employees. Now in its third year, Lunch Pals includes participants from other businesses who together mentor almost 700 students in Pinellas County schools.

How does a lunch help kids?

In Pinellas County there are more than 100,000 kids in the school system, and more than half are economically disadvantaged. It doesn't mean if you have that characteristic in your life that you don't have caring adults. But the chances are greater than less that you may not have as many caring adults in your life … who could make (students) feel good and give them confidence and self-esteem. There's data on mentoring in general that talks about how everybody successful has had caring adults in their lives. Nobody gets there alone.

What sort of children get mentors?

I mentored a little boy the first year — poor little guy was 7 years old, and he and his 4-year-old brother lived on the grounds of the Salvation Army in a group home … I always imagined what it was like for this poor kid to go home from school and his mother was never there.

Do you have to establish trust with the children before they accept you? Are they standoffish at first?

I didn't really find that to be the case. I think we got together pretty rapidly, but there can be a little time.

What is the challenge you face trying to get people to be a mentor?

It was my feeling that there's a lot of people out there, if you said, "be a mentor," the response I've had is, "What does that mean? I don't know if I can do this." So the idea of Lunch Pals is, it is what it is, you're just a pal. As my wife, who was a social worker in the school systems for 20 years has said to me, "The most important thing you do as a lunch pal is show up." (Be) somebody who cares enough to want to be with the child. That's the big deal.

How do you prepare the mentors?

The training is designed to talk about what it means to be a mentor and thoughts about what you might do, which are principally in the area of listening or just being a caring friend.

What sort of scrutiny is put on the mentors?

Everyone who is in the program gets background checked, but it's a level-one background check, and that means people just fill out a two-page form and a copy of their driver's license and the school system does the background checks at no cost. The level of scrutiny is a little lower because the contact with the child takes place only at lunch and only at school and only in supervised areas.

How much of a time investment is it to be a Lunch Pal?

It's only half an hour. You don't have to feel bad because you're not spending the weekends with them or calling them up. … It's very easy to participate. … We partner people up with a school which is very close so people can go there, have lunch and get back over their lunch hour.

When does the relationship end?

In a perfect world, people will continue to come back the next year with the same child and, hopefully, if they're willing, follow them to middle school and on to high school. I have one little boy in fourth grade, so he has one more year and he wanted to make sure I was still going to be his pal next year. We've had people from Raymond James who have followed them on.

How does hosting a Lunch Pals program affect employee morale?

From an organizational point of view, we asked them how they felt about their organization now as opposed to before they got involved. Overwhelmingly, they felt better about their companies. There are a lot of people looking for opportunities to give back, and when their companies offer them an opportunity to do that, they like working for those companies.

You can monitor the behavior and attendance of your Lunch Pals. Do you see anything in that data that shows this is a positive experience?

We're in our second formal year, and we did talk about whether long-term we're going to measure impact on attendance and grades. We've chosen not to do it yet. First of all, it requires a lot of cost, and there's data to be collected. And when it comes to academics, having a child to be a pal with over lunch is only one part of what makes a kid successful in school, so we're a little reluctant to try and claim that we're what's causing kids to move forward … We feel better about relying on the fact that we know that mentoring helps.

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