Learning at lunch

Seventh-grader Virginia Scarberry takes her lunch tray outside the Newton-Conover Middle School cafeteria on Wednesdays.

She settles into a seat at a classroom table, where she plays board games and talks about her life with a new friend, Jane Echerd.

“I like having someone I can talk to about my problems,” Scarberry said recently over a game of Mosaic Mysteries and a meal of noodles, applesauce and chocolate milk.

Echerd is Scarberry’s lunch-buddy mentor. The pair is among dozens who meet each week during lunch periods at Catawba County middle schools.

January is National Mentoring Month. The lunch-buddy mentoring program — a collaboration of several Catawba County youth and education organizations — kicked off in September 2011. According to students, mentors and program facilitators, the initiative has become a resounding success.

“I’m really pleased with the mentors who stepped up to commit,” said Jeanne Brannock, a NCMS guidance counselor who coordinates the program at the school. “I believe the mentors truly want to make a difference in these kids’ lives, and there are so many kids who need that.”

Echerd recently retired and wanted to work with children in area school systems. She signed up to be a lunch-buddy mentor at NCMS, one of three pilot schools for the program, along with River Bend and Grandview middle schools.

“We talk about family when we get together,” Echerd said. “I like playing games with her, and she beats me all the time.”

Brannock said program coordinators worked to match mentors and students based on common interests.

At NCMS, seventh-grader Stephen Lewis Jr. and mentor Rick Setzer share an interest in Scouts. Clara Hailey and mentor Nancy McCaskill enjoy talking about movies. Alexis Guynn and her mentor, Janice Moore, of Claremont, both enjoy horses and skating.

“And this works out great to come and spend 30 minutes over lunch,” said Moore, a medical librarian at Catawba Valley Medical Center. “We talk about a little bit of everything, mostly family. We try to encourage family and love.”

McCaskill said she enjoys a chance to spend time with youth.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been around a 13-year-old,” she said.

“Hopefully if Clara had any particular problems, she’d be able to talk to me.”

Clara said she likes the mentoring program because it allows her to escape the crowded, noisy cafeteria. Brannock said she moves mentoring groups to rooms outside the cafeteria because the students seem to like the isolation.

“We’re working with mentors and students for where they feel most comfortable,” she said. “Middle school is a tough age. I believe the students who have the mentors are the right ones.”

A steering committee and organizers are now meeting with mentors at the three middle schools to obtain feedback about the program and how it can better help students. Early responses have been positive, said Lamar Mitchell, director of Champions of Education, a sponsoring agency.

“We absolutely intend to launch the program in additional schools,” Mitchell said.