Youth program employs buddy system

Jenniffer Wise

When Liz Sesser’s little buddy first met her, she said he was surprised she was a girl.
“My little buddy was energetic, a jock. He wanted to go to Princeton to play football,” said Sesser, a senior in English. “He tested me at first, and because I could beat him at the 100-meter dash and basketball, because I hung in there, I grew on him and he depended on me to pick him up on the weekend.”
Sesser coordinates Project Motivation, a program that matches big buddies from the community with little buddies from 10 Minneapolis grade schools. The leader’s goal for the program this year is to have 170 buddy matches. There are presently 70 big buddy volunteers. Coordinators said that women tend to volunteer more often than men.
Of all volunteers, 90 percent are college students and 95 percent are white, said Andrea Jasken-Baker, the program’s director. However, 70 percent of the children in the program are African-American.
A table will be set up in Coffman Union today and Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. to recruit new big buddies. Although the program’s coordinators originally set the application deadline for Friday, they have extended it to recruit more people.
“The Big Buddy is this nice college student who will take the kid to do fun things or hang out at their house. They are not a tutor, not a baby-sitter. It’s all fun for them,” said Sesser.
Christiaan Engstrom’s little buddy was Jacob Walinski, of Dowling School in Minneapolis.
“It was basically non-stop laughter,” said Engstrom, a junior in business and journalism, of Fort Atkinson, Wisc.
“When guys think about spending time with a child, they think they have to reveal emotions. But you just need to be a good friend,” said Engstrom. “It seems like a big commitment and a lot of time, but the time flies when you are with a little kid. I took him to movies, sledding, bowling. We went to the Mall of America and didn’t spend a dollar.”
The project’s coordinators encourage free and inexpensive buddy activities. For example, volunteers get free tickets from the Children’s Theatre, are given membership at any YMCA and go bowling. Big buddies spend three to five hours per week with their little buddies.
From November to May, the time frame for the program, volunteers touch base at Tuesday night meetings for training and for problem solving.
Kietra Blake, a sophomore in elementary education from Madison, Wisc., said she had a conflict with her 12-year-old little buddy Antoine and the meetings helped her resolve it.
“He would say, You can’t play baseball or basketball,'” Blake said. “He was under the impression that I was from a different background, that I was rich. He would say, I want a big buddy with money. You don’t know what it’s like because my Mom never buys me anything.’ The more times we saw each other, the better it got.”
This year Blake is a member of the volunteer staff for Project Motivation. She recruits, trains and interviews new big buddies.
Although her experience with her little buddy was challenging, she recognizes the value in the relationship. “I am from a small town, and I felt that I learned a lot about different backgrounds. I saw where the kids were coming from.”
Buddies are interviewed and matched based on personality. Matches will be assigned at the end of November. Sesser said the matches sometimes hit it off immediately and others take a while.
“Sometimes the toughest match is inseparable. It takes patience, because you are forced to meet someone so different,” she said.
Big buddies must have perseverance, said Liz Harper, a junior in genetics. “Kids are sometimes more guarded than adults. But there is a lot you can learn, like optimism, independence,” she said. “Adults get bogged down because they are so into their lives they forget to have fun.”
College students gain 100 hours of volunteer experience and meet many friends, said Engstrom.
“This is just like a class in life. You apply what you learn now until you are an old man,” he said. “This is a valuable aspect of college life, something you can never get in the classroom.”