Lunch Buddies program doubles in size to 10 schools, looking for more mentors

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When Derek DuSold volunteered to mentor a local elementary student “as a favor to a close friend” last school year, he had no idea the impact it would make – for both his mentee and himself.

The premise of United Way of Northeastern Minnesota’s Lunch Buddies mentoring program– one lunch break a week can change a child’s life – sounded great, the preparatory process – an application, interview, and training – were thorough, and DuSold, a behavioral health manager at Fairview Range Medical Center, found the program orientation presented “good, sound clinical reasoning behind its methods.”

Still, he said, his “expectations were fairly low,” especially when he met his mentee who intentionally sat as far away as possible from him. How much of a difference could one lunch break a week make?

As the weeks went on, DuSold’s mentee warmed to him a little but still seemed to have “no desire to do anything other than survive this 30 minutes of time so he could move on to the next thing in his day.”

After one month, his mentee chose an activity for the two to do for the first time. In the second month, he “taught” DuSold how to play chess. By winter, he started to tell DuSold about his home life and his interests.

“The changes I saw in my mentee throughout the year were unexpected, but what I was truly unprepared for was how much this experience has made an impact on me,” he said. “I did not anticipate forming a bond with some random child through 30-minute lunches once a week.”

DuSold was among dozens of local adults who were screened and matched with local children through UWNEMN’s Lunch Buddies program last school year and is one of many who requested to stay on as a mentor this school year – with the same mentee if possible.

“One lunch break a week can change a child’s life isn’t a catchphrase. It’s the truth,” said UWNEMN Community Impact Director Katy Lofquist. “Our team, volunteers, and school partners are seeing it in action, and we are so excited to see this program grow.”

This year, Lunch Buddies is expanding from five local schools to 10, doubling not only the number of students that can be served but also doubling the need for volunteers.

While this is a significant increase in the number of volunteers needed, UWNEMN Education and Childhood Programs Specialist Sarah Gardeski said she feels optimistic that community members will rise to the occasion.

“In communities where the program is returning (Babbitt, Cherry, Chisholm, Keewatin, and Mountain Iron) I am hopeful that mentors, parents, and school staff have seen the impact and won’t hesitate to get involved again this year,” she said. “The new communities (Eveleth, International Falls, Mesabi East, and Virginia) have great existing support for local children, and I think once they see Lunch Buddies in action, it will only grow more!”

UWNEMN’s Lunch Buddies mentoring program pairs grade school students with a local adult, based on shared interests and other factors, to share a lunch period together once a week. Mentors are responsible for bringing their own meals, students bring lunch from home or partake in school lunch, and UWNEMN provides activities and guidance. Students are referred by school staff and given permission to participate by parents.

Adults interested in becoming mentors are able to select their volunteer location and will be screened through an application, interview, and background check. All Lunch Buddies mentors will also receive training prior to mentoring.

UWNEMN is accepting applications and interviewing applicants now with the hopes of mentors and mentees meeting as soon as October. Interest forms are also available for those who are unsure if they can commit to the school year but would like to learn more and stay up-to-date as more details emerge for this school year.

“We want to give schools the time to identify which students would be best served by this program and find a day of the week that works best for them to set as ‘Lunch Buddies day,’” Gardeski said. “We also want to get started as soon as we can to give mentors and mentees as much time together as possible.”

Once the program starts, mentors and mentees will meet one day a week throughout the school year with the exception of holiday breaks. Mentors are allowed absences, though they are asked to commit to a full school year to give enough time for a reliable connection to be built with their mentee.

By the end of the 2022-2023 school year, DuSold’s mentee began asking if they’d be able to be matched again the following school year, and he asked DuSold to walk with him to his locker.

On their final day together, they walked to the locker together, as usual.

“I watched him clear a spot free of crumpled papers so he had a special place for the picture of us we had decorated over ice cream,” DuSold recalls. “He showed me his goals sheet. He talked about the things he wanted to be better at, and he was proud to share with me his plan to get there.

… I certainly did not expect that these sessions would cause both myself and my mentee to complete the program with hope for his future.”

DuSold said he now plans to encourage people he knows to volunteer as Lunch Buddies “until they’re sick of hearing about it.”

To learn more or apply to be a Lunch Buddy, visit:

s volunteers are needed for the following schools:

  • Cherry School
  • International Falls Elementary
  • Keewatin Elementary
  • Laurentian Elementary (Eveleth)
  • Merritt Elementary (Mountain Iron)
  • Mesabi East Elementary
  • Northeast Range School (Babbitt)
  • North Star Elementary (Eveleth)
  • Parkview Elementary (Virginia)
  • Vaughan Steffensrud Elementary