‘Little’ Program Offers More Than Lunch To Students

CARY – To hear the participants talk about, the Lunch-Time Mentoring program at Prairie Hill School in Cary is a big deal – literally.

Employees from Sage Products Inc., known as “Bigs,” gather once a week during the school to share lunch and mentor their “Littles,” as part of Big Brothers Big Sisters of McHenry County’s Lunch-Time Mentoring program.

“It’s about taking one lunch time out of your week to laugh, talk or play a board game with your Little Brother or Little Sister,” said Robyn Ostrem, executive director of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of McHenry County. “It doesn’t take much to make a positive difference to a child that will last their lifetime.”Ostrem estimated that 50 of her agency’s 558 adult mentors participate in the lunch-time program, begun four years ago by Sage owner Vincent Foglia and the Foglia Family Foundation. That is the same time it came to Prairie Hill – one of three Cary schools, including Briargate and Three Oaks schools, that host lunch-time mentors. North Elementary School in Crystal Lake, as well as Edgebrook Elementary and Chauncy H. Duker schools in

Ostrem estimated that 50 of her agency’s 558 adult mentors participate in the lunch-time program, begun four years ago by Sage owner Vincent Foglia and the Foglia Family Foundation. That is the same time it came to Prairie Hill – one of three Cary schools, including Briargate and Three Oaks schools, that host lunch-time mentors. North Elementary School in Crystal Lake, as well as Edgebrook Elementary and Chauncy H. Duker schools in McHenry are the others.

Participating companies include Knaack LLC in Crystal Lake, Corporate Disk Corp. and Follett Software Co. in McHenry, and Sage in Cary.“The schools are very hungry for this program, but it’s really hard to get the businesses,” Ostrem said. “When you are having a peanut butter sandwich think, ‘I could be doing this with a child who really needs me in his life.’”

For information, call 815-385-3855 or visit www.bbbsmchenry.org. The mentoring program resumes in September.

“As soon as we heard about it we thought it was a terrific idea. Sage is very committed to the community and staying local,” said Scott Brown, president and chief operating officer of Sage Products. “When we heard that associates could mentor children literally in our neighborhood, I thought nothing could be more local than this; more impactful. It’s for the kids right down the street.”

Sage has 27 lunchtime mentors at three schools. Some have entered the regular mentoring program, which is key. The number of adult women wishing to volunteer outnumbers the number of girls needing “Bigs,” Brown said. “We always have more boys who need Big Brothers.”

Toward that end Brown, who also serves on board of Big Brothers Big Sisters of McHenry County, said Sage hopes to ramp up participation and reach 40 volunteers by next fall when school starts.

Brown believes that one lunch hour a week for nine months is a small sacrifice, considering the impact volunteers have.

Olga Garcia, a raw materials buyer at Sage, has been participating in the lunchtime mentoring program for about 2 1/2 years. She no sooner stepped into the classroom, that hosted the year-end pizza party May 12 at Prairie Hill School, than she received a big hug from a little girl. Eleven-year-olds Brenda and her friend, Mary Ann, (Garcia was filling in for her Big) beamed while Garcia touted the benefits of “Carlotte’s Web” and casually asked questions from across the table.

“You ready for summer? How many more weeks of school? You excited?”

Brenda said she hoped to attend summer school, since “it’s boring in the house.”

Ben Ogren, a social worker at Prairie Hill School, said homework seldom comes up during lunch. “I think it’s more about giving a good role model, an adult in my life that I can look up to and get some of the intangible things,” he said. “I don’t even use the word ‘mentor’ with them.”

Mike Nygren, director of marketing communications at Sage, said he learned as much or more from his Little – 12-year-old Carl. During the four years the two have been sharing weekly lunches, Carl said he’d become a better listener and is better able to handle disappointment. Nygren said he’d learned more than a little about video games .. and chess.

“He beats me every single time, so he didn’t teach me everything,” Nygren said with a laugh.

Prairie Hill School houses fifth- and sixth-graders, but the lunchtime mentoring program caters to all elementary students, Ostrem said. An after-school mentoring program with high school volunteers takes over after that. Also, anyone can volunteer – employees, retirees and stay-at-home parents. There are a surplus of needy kids.

“Its about building a friendship with another trusting adult. They are used to people who disappear, who do not come to events; or a mother who is working multiple jobs and does not have time to talk with them one on one,” Ogren said of the dozen “Littles” at his school. “I hear them talk about their relationship with the Bigs. You can tell that it is a positive experience for them.”

Most have been in the program for several years, although Ogren did refer a couple kids for the program this year at the advice of teachers.

“The kids who are in it, love it,” he said. “What really hit home this year when in the first week the fifth-graders knew they would be getting their Big Brothers from fourth grade. Those kids were so loud, so excited running around like crazy. They obviously were so excited to see them. That was really cool to see.”

Each “Big” has a Big Brother Big Sister staff member working with them as a liaison with the school and to provide support to ensure a positive experience – be it sharing meal from McDonald’s or playing a game. Not only do “Littles” receive the undivided attention of a caring adult, meeting at lunch avoids such pitfalls as lack of transportation and scheduling difficulties.

“When my kids were growing up, my wife was in and out of school all the time,” Brown said. “The kids had someone showing up for a concert or art show or science show. Then you think about all the kids who don’t get that. … We have a slogan at Big Brothers Big Sisters: ‘Change someone’s life – yours.’”

Copyright © 2011 Northwest Herald. All rights reserved.

More From the Newsroom