Every Tuesday throughout the school year, a team from Big Sea carpools to a local elementary school. There, we sign in, pick up our badges, and meet with our Lunch Pals.
This mentoring program, which recently won the 2017 Florida Association of Partners in Education Community Engagement Award, pairs adults with children in need of extra attention and companionship. It’s the perfect fit for volunteering at work, because the kids need mentoring during the school (and work) day.
Last year, over 700 mostly elementary-aged students were mentored by Lunch Pals volunteers in Pinellas County. Big Sea mentored 2nd, 3rd and 4th graders. Each of our mentees had unique needs and situations, but they had one thing in common — a love of slime.
The benefits of volunteering at work are clear. Big Sea’s commitment to community outreach gave many of us the time to volunteer during the workday, something many of us might not otherwise be able to make space for.
While we were there to help our kids out as best we could during their lunch break, we quickly learned that we weren’t going to magically change everything for these kids. They were sometimes slow to warm up to us, and experienced more in their lives than they could possibly communicate to us in just half an hour. But we bonded over lunches, crafts, sports, and books. We listened to them. Kids so often just need attention, and that isn’t a bad thing. We all want to be seen and heard.
You can learn a lot when you listen to children.
Letting go and being present
“Lunch Pals has taught me to be vulnerable and open my heart,” says Creative Director Adriana Generallo. “My lunch pal is an incredibly sweet 10-year-old, but before I met her I was intimidated by who I might be paired with and what her reception of me would me. Letting go often accompanies being vulnerable and opening one’s heart, and I’ve learned through our time with Lunch Pals to let go of what I think should come from the experience. The best we can hope to be is open to the world and present with the moment at hand; so to have this experience as a reminder of that has been a blessing.”
Encouraging good choices
“I’m reminded every week just how fortunate my own child is — that she has parents who care, that she has all of the resources she needs,” says Big Sea CMO Andi Graham. ” I’m also reminded that a half hour per week is just not enough to change a child’s worldview, but we can at least open their eyes. My pal knows right from wrong, but she’s surrounded with people who make the wrong choices seem like the right thing to do. She’s having a hard time seeing that the right choice can lead to better outcomes in the long run (is there a long run for a 10 year old?) — so I’m there to help her see that path. I don’t know if it’s happening, but I hope so — and my only role is to keep trying.”
Senior Designer Rich Lim says, “Lunch Pals has opened my eyes to just how similar and different we are from our neighbors down the street. It has also given me an immense amount of gratitude for my own family as well as a new valuable, perspective that I wouldn’t have otherwise had.”
“The biggest lesson I have learned while participating as a mentor in the lunch pals program is the importance of showing up and being present. Taliyah, my mentee, was slow to warm up to me and my weekly visits, but I kept showing up,” says Account Manager Kristen Odom. “Week after week of me showing up, she finally started to open up a little, which was a huge step. The consistency and my dedicated focus time with her every week slowly built trust between us. The action of showing up for something or someone consistently conveys a powerful message of dedication without having to say a word.”
Forging real connections
“Lunch Pals connected me with our neighbors, connected us with our future clients, employees, and game changers,” says Big Sea CTO Dzuy Nguyen. “With real faces and names, I get to hear their needs and wants, and the challenges their generation is facing. Perhaps we can do something about it, maybe we help them, maybe they help us…but at the end of the day, I’ve made one more true connection in an era of digital distance.”
Celebrating small wins
My mentee was the exact same age as my son. Same birthday, even! As a mom, I expected to instantly bond with her. I couldn’t have been more wrong. She was suspicious of me, and she was eager to prove that she was independent and not in need of any help. For many weeks, I felt like a failure. I was so focused on feeling like I wasn’t getting through to her, that it took me a while to realize that she was opening up to me more and more each Tuesday. As the school year ended, she brought something up that was causing her a lot of sadness. I was honored to be a safe adult in the face of her vulnerability and uncertainty. Now I try to be more aware of the small wins that add up.
Take advantages of the benefits of volunteering
Volunteering at work gives team members clear headspace to shake off routines and patterns. Regardless of whether or not you’re working with children, being exposed to new perspectives and new situations can make you a stronger employee (and a more satisfied person!) Consider volunteering together — not only at a team building event — but as a regular part of your work routine.