BRUNSWICK — At most elementary schools, lunch time is just for eating.
But at Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary, Willo Wright is working to change that.
Last year, Wright launched “Lunch Bunch,” an in-school mentoring program that pairs community volunteers with second-graders, who get together weekly to eat lunch.
The initiative began at the Coffin School in fall 2016. After realizing the facility was too small, however, Wright said she approached administrators at Harriet Beecher Stowe to ask if volunteers could follow their assigned students when the children transitioned from first to second grade. The program is now run at second-grade lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Students are selected to be paired with mentors by guidance counselors, but Wright said she and her volunteers, who include Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Emerson and School Resource Officer Tom Stanton, have become quite popular with all students.
“(There are) ones that come to us and say I want to be a part of this group. A few of them don’t need it, but they’re just so cute; these second-graders are adorable,” Wright said. “I just think a relationship is the most important thing of anything at all; you can’t educate a child unless you have a relationship with them first.”
Though she has enough volunteers to run the program twice a week, Wright said she is hoping to attract more so that mentors can stay with the same students through third, fourth and fifth grades.
“I think we could have more volunteers; I’d love to see the program grow,” she said. “The commitment is so minimal…some of the (volunteers) come in for lunch for 30 minutes and then they leave.”
Emerson said he got involved with Lunch Bunch because of Wright, and she deserves a lot of credit.
“Willo is one of those people that just gets people involved and she’s really done a great job with this program,” he said.
He added that he and Stanton can also help the kids interact with law enforcement in a casual setting.
“I guess from our perspective there’s a huge impact for us to effectively (deliver) messages we’re trying to deliver to children of all ages,” he said. “It’s fun because we can answer their questions and at the same time we can provide maybe some extra education that they don’t even realize they’re getting.”
Wright has experience in mentory local youth and runs several groups for young people in the greater Portland area. She also co-founded the Brunswick-based nonprofit Seeds of Independence with her husband, Thomas Wright, which seeks to ensure youth “are on a pathway toward becoming independent and productive members of their community,” according to its website.
Although Wright is no longer involved with Seeds of Independence, she said her work experience over the years has shown her the importance of early intervention. She added she believes the burden of mitigating students’ behavior issues often falls on teachers, in an era of heightened stress.
Wright also said Lunch Bunch helps mentors get an accurate idea of today’s school climate. Some volunteers, she said, have not been involved with local primary schools in decades.
“It’s been such a long time since their children were in little tiny Freeport public school and it’s a different ballgame these days,” she said. “And so it brings such good community awareness.”
Assistant Principal Joshua Levy said mentors moving to second grade with the same students as last year has allowed for a “nice natural transition” for the program to its new venue.
He also said the added adult presence at lunch and recess is helpful, and that Wright’s volunteers help supplement volunteer help from Bowdoin and high school students.
“Willo and the Lunch Bunch crew, just (their) consistency has been wonderful,” he said. “At times we know kids depend on consistent adults that might not always be there, so this is a group that is, and that means a world to these children.”
Lynn Pierce, a Freeport resident and former teacher who volunteers with Lunch Bunch weekly, said she also enjoys the consistency of the group and its concept.
“The adults are talking to the kids, the adults are talking to each other, it’s good modeling for the kids,” Pierce said. “I think it fosters good conversations and good listening.”
Thomas Dodge, another Freeport resident and former teacher, worked with Wright through Seeds of Independence, and said he especially loves volunteering in the area where he grew up. With Lunch Bunch, he added, volunteers are hoping early mentoring will help the students encounter fewer issues down the road.
“It’s really about a community helping to raise their youth,” Dodge said. “If there are kids who need extra help with something, whether it’s academic help, or social help, or help at home, it’s not just up to them. They have community members that can help.”
Lunch Bunch volunteers Thomas Dodge, Willo Wright and Lynn Pierce during recess at Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School in Brunswick. The mentoring group, started by Wright, pairs adult volunteers with second-graders for a weekly meal in the school cafeteria.