Bright Idea: Mealtime Mentoring Makes for a Good Partnership

A young woman mentors a girl over breakfast.

One organization offers young people a place to go every day after school. The other matches caring adults with youth who need a positive role model. Join the two approaches together and the result is a site-based mentoring program that combines the strengths and missions of the two organizations.

That’s the thinking behind Mealtime Buddies, a program spearheaded by Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Ozarks, in Springfield, MO. College-age mentors meet children or youth once a week (for at least one year) for dinner at a local Boys and Girls Club or Salvation Army.

The program benefits all involved, says Lisa Slavens, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Ozarks. “It provides one-on-one attention for kids at programs strained for money,” she says. At the same time, the program appeals to college students and young professionals who want to volunteer but have busy schedules—because everyone has to eat. And because, mentors and mentees meet at the afterschool program site, where planned activities take place, mentors feel less pressure. “You don’t have to worry about where to go or what to do,” she says.

The simple idea of bringing mentors and mentees together over a weekly meal requires strong collaboration to succeed, Slavens says. In seeking partners, she looked for afterschool programs that meet in the same place every day and have consistent attendance. “We don’t want to make a match if the child isn’t going to be there to participate,” she says.

Slavens shared these additional tips for starting a mealtime mentoring program:

Get started in stages. Mealtime Buddies began with 20 children per night a couple nights a week. Slavens suggests starting with one night a week for the first few months; once the program is established, consider expanding to additional nights as a way to reach more young people (and to give mentors more flexibility in choosing the night they want to volunteer).

Provide supervision. Big Brothers Big Sisters staff are on-site for Mealtime Buddies each night. Staff members take attendance of mentors and mentees and answer mentors’ questions.

Ensure that mentors are trained by staff of both organizations. Slavens says Mealtime Buddies mentors receive standard Big Brothers Big Sisters training as well as an orientation from Boys and Girls Club or Salvation Army staff.

Communicate regularly with your partner. “Communication between the two collaborating agencies is just crucial,” Slavens says. For instance, before training mentors, sit down with your partners and go over each others’ rules. “We had no idea [mentors] couldn’t wear open-toe shoes” when volunteering at Boys and Girls Clubs, Slavens says.

In addition to staying abreast of each others’ rules, be sure to update each other on staff turnover and to regularly discuss opportunities for joint publicity and fundraising.

Plan icebreakers. Plan activities for the first few weeks of the program, Slavens says. Otherwise, when mentors and mentees meet for the first time, “It could be like a really bad blind date,” she explains.

For more information about Mealtime Buddies, contact Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Ozarks.



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