As some of you know, I like to say I won the lottery because I grew up in “God’s country” — North Dakota. But the truth is, I really won the lottery by growing up in a great home with a great mom and dad.

So, when United Way of Northeastern Minnesota (UWNEMN) staff first started talking about piloting a mentoring program on the Iron Range, I thought, “What for? Doesn’t this get dealt with at home?”

Like always, I had to speak up and ask what the need really is for a mentoring program on the Iron Range. And like always, UWNEMN staff had done their research and were able to answer that question for me.

It turns out, the need for a mentoring program for local kids is as great — or maybe even greater — than the need for UWNEMN’s Buddy Backpacks program. There are currently more than 900 kids on the Iron Range receiving weekend packages of food through Buddy Backpacks; that’s about 7 percent of all students. Staff at Hibbing schools where the new mentoring program is being piloted estimate 30 percent of their students could benefit from one-on-one mentoring.

Kids today face new challenges and more issues than ever before. To meet these challenges, kids need support from many sources — especially from strong, positive, adult role models – but the reality is, 1 in 3 kids today will grow up without a mentor.

Turns out, I won big getting all the mentoring I needed at home and then some. Think about people who helped you get where you are today. If someone comes to mind — a parent, coach, or a favorite teacher — then you “won the lottery,” too.

The new mentoring program, Lunch Buddies, will pair first grade students (as selected by the schools) who are in need of an additional supportive adult mentor in their life with a volunteer mentor. The program will be piloted in the Hibbing Washington and Greenhaven Elementary schools, where mentors and mentees will share one lunch break per week from March – May.

As UWNEMN staff has told me, research continually shows positive benefits of mentoring for students: increased confidence, improved academic performance, and a decrease in risky behaviors. By volunteering as a mentor, you can help change a local child’s life — you can help them “win the lottery” be helping to provide them the foundation they need to succeed in life.

This program will be the only one of its kind on the Iron Range. There are currently no other agencies or organizations that provide one-on-one mentoring for local youth. UWNEMN hopes to take what they learn this spring and pilot Lunch Buddies in other schools across the region in the future. Thousands of Iron Range kids could someday be matched with a Lunch Buddy mentor – but of course, that depends on how many Iron Range adults volunteer to be mentors.

Learn more about the Lunch Buddies mentor program and stay tuned for future mentor opportunities at: www.unitedwaynemn.org/lunch-buddies.

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