Katherine Head

What can 45 minutes a week actually do for a child? You'd be surprised. I was.

As a lunch buddy I asked myself that question repeatedly as I began my volunteer work last year. Other questions followed—questions like, "Is this making a difference?" "Does she like me?" "Am I getting through?" "Does she know why I am doing this and why a stranger would care?" "Am I asking her the right questions?" As the academic year drew to a close, however, all the answers were clear. Just 45 minutes of mentoring during a child's lunch hour can be instrumental to the young person, and so very rewarding to an adult.

My lunch buddy was a tenacious tomboy. Quiet at first, she grew to trust me with some of her secrets, her quick and gruff hugs and her reflections on life as a 12-year-old. I listened intently, provided an occasional word of wisdom, befriended her BFFs (best friends forever), praised her accomplishments in school and relived the awkwardness of my own adolescence. We'd play wall ball or basketball at recess. Sometimes we'd just sit and chat.

We'd then grab our meals and sit down at one of the long tables in the cafeteria. "Are you her mom?" I got asked that quite a few times. After the initial shock (I would have been just 18 at her birth if I were her parent), I replied, "Nope, I'm her Lunch Buddy." By the end of the spring, it seemed like I had inherited a brood of buddies. I liked leading my gaggle of girls. I felt a little like a mother duck. They'd tell me about crushes and other girls who were mean to them, after-school plans and long-term dreams. They were my clique, and I was fiercely protective.

When the last week of school rolled around, I was sad that my standing Thursday lunch date would be predisposed with summer vacation. I walked her to her after-lunch class, arm in arm. I know what challenges this world has in store for her, and I had developed a sense of longing to be there for her when they manifested.

Hopefully, a little part of me will. I hope she will remember that you don't have to be like all the other kids to be successful. I hope that she recalls a chubby redhead who wore high heel boots and played basketball anyway, had tattoos, went to college, and was the editor of a newspaper when she feels defeated by society's expectations. I hope she knows that I think about her goofy escapades, her thoughtful silences and her unwillingness to conform to traditional standards of beauty when I feel wary about the plight of the world's female population. Her innocence reminded me that children should be allowed to remain thus for as long as possible, and adults should hearken back to youthful silliness whenever possible.

I encourage anyone with the will to better the life of a child to sign up for the Lunch Buddy program. You don’t need to be any particular type of person—just someone who cares about kids and wants to contribute through consistent, reliable care. It is such a small time commitment, but the difference it can make is huge.


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