Keongela Norton of Tallahassee thought she might be able to help a young student when she signed up for the Lunch Pals mentoring program at Gulfport Montessori Elementary School. What she discovered was that the help goes both ways.
Via the program, a volunteer spends about half an hour a week eating lunch in the school cafeteria with a student who has been identified as potentially benefiting from one-on-one attention from an encouraging adult. Norton, a second-semester freshman at Stetson University College of Law, was paired with Zyreyal, 7, a second-grader.
During lunch on Tuesday, February 14, Norton sat at a table in a corner of the noisy cafeteria with Zyreyal and several other students talking about school. It was hard to hear amid the din as the excited students all chattered and tried to get her attention.
While some mentors prefer to spend time with their students individually, Norton said she likes to talk to all the children at once while still focusing on her special person. That way she can help the others too while getting a better picture of what’s going on with Zyreyal – like when they told her he got in trouble for fighting. She was then able to discuss more in detail with him what had happened.
In addition to spending time with the students, the volunteers are able to bring small gifts as incentives for their mentees to behave.
“The incentives work really well,” Norton said. An especially sought-after reward are spicy corn-and- potato snacks. “They’ll say, ‘I’ll do good in class if you bring me hot fries.’”
Asked what he thought of the program, Zyreyal, who described himself as a friendly person who enjoys PE, said of his mentor, “She’s nice.”
Norton said before she started volunteering at the school she had imagined herself going into criminal law. But after seeing some of the problems the school faces, she’s considering specializing in kindergarten through 12th grade law.
“The kids seem to love the school,” she said. “I think the teachers here are amazing.” The problems, she said, appear to stem more from the policy level and a lack of funding and manpower.
In addition to spending time with the children, Norton said she feels she can help by providing a positive role model.
“For me growing up, I never really met an African-American lawyer or professional other than my mother,” she said, adding that her mom is a youth mental health therapist.
By being in the students’ lives, she said, she may help them see “that there are more opportunities out there than they would have originally imagined.”
Lunch Pals was launched in July 2015 as a partnership between Pinellas County Schools and Raymond James. In the second half of 2016 mentors in 42 schools served 546 students.
The program is seeking volunteers. For more information on how to participate in the Lunch Pals at Gulfport Elementary please contact Mary Ruth Bumgarner at 727-893-2643 x 2078 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or at the county level, Susan Schneck, Pinellas County Schools, 727-588-6000 x 1369 or email@example.com.