Breakfast Buddies: Empowering Students in Before-School Hours

Jill Pereira, United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley
July 10, 2013
This blog is a part of a nine-week series on how community school initiatives are supporting and strengthening innovations in expanded learning opportunities (ELO), curated by the Coalition for Community Schools. Check out the whole series.
It is 7:30 am on a typical Wednesday morning and nearly two dozen of Roosevelt Elementary School’s 125 fifth grade students are already wide-eyed and eagerly gathered outside the school, ready to get a head start on the day.
Roosevelt is one of 11 community schools supported by United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley's Community Partners for Student Success (COMPASS) initiative. These fifth grade students have arrived more than an hour early for the opportunity to connect with their “Breakfast Buddy” from Air Products, a local Fortune 500 Company, global manufacturer of industrial atmospheric and electronics specialty gases, and major employer in the Lehigh Valley. Air Products has been successful in business, in giving back to their community, and in supporting their sponsored school. As the lead corporate partner for Roosevelt, they have dedicated funding and resources to this effort, including identifying an Air Products employee to be a liaison, or employee champion, between the company and the community school effort that has been taking shape at Roosevelt over the last few years. The employee champion links what is happening on the ground at Roosevelt back to the resources and potential employee volunteers at Air Products. The employee champion also brings ideas to create new opportunities that fit the vision and needs at the school while offering new ways for Air Products employees to get involved in further strengthening Air Products’ investment. Breakfast Buddies exists today at Roosevelt because of this dynamic, kid-focused partnership!  
Nearly five years ago, Mary Beth Golab, an Air Products employee champion, began attending Roosevelt’s Community School Leadership Team meetings. The Leadership Team is comprised of school staff, students, families, and community partners, including faith based organizations, higher education institutions, local housing authorities, health care institutions, and others. Led by Roosevelt’s community school director, who is employed by lead partner agency Boys & Girls Club of Allentown, the Leadership Team’s charge is to review school data, identify clear needs and create quality solutions with the collective resources available. Mary Beth became inspired by the opportunities that community partners and the school had created and soon joined the blossoming PTA. As her participation at the school increased, so did her great ideas and enthusiasm for ways to engage her fellow employees.
At one Leadership Team meeting, the community school director shared data related to students in need of additional social-emotional learning. The principal indicated that many students were regularly being referred to the office for discipline problems, but that district resources were stretched too thin to offer any additional intervention supports. At the same time, the Leadership Team was also discussing the 40 Developmental Assets that children need for healthy development (e.g., support, empowerment, positive values, and positive identity). Why? Because children at Roosevelt need a lot of support; close to 90% of the 798 students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, 34% change schools during the school year and many come from families where English is not the primary language.
The Leadership Team was seeking connections with partners to help “grow” additional asset development in all children at Roosevelt, with a special focus on those with repeated negative behavior issues. Mary Beth saw an opportunity to meet both of these school needs and suggested a mentoring program where Air Products employees would share time with Roosevelt students. Several brainstorm sessions later, the Breakfast Buddies before-school mentoring program had begun!
The focus of the program is really simple: connect a child who can benefit from a one-on-one relationship with a positive role model who can inspire and motivate them to dream big and set goals for positive growth. This happens through consistent weekly sessions with their adult “buddy” over a hot breakfast in Roosevelt’s school library. Mentors are invited to share their thoughts, hopes, fears, career paths, and any other tips or encouragement that may be helpful to guiding students on the path to graduation and success. Buddies also participate in a variety of intermingled activities such as chess, puzzle building, reading books, telling jokes, working on homework assignments, making crafts, laughing, and sharing fun facts about movies.
This opportunity is making a difference. Before-school programs easily lend themselves to being staffed by professionals who can volunteer an hour at the front end of their work day, making them a feasible way to introduce expanded learning opportunities before the school day starts. Before-school programs also help students start the day right, focused and ready to learn throughout the day. Over time, students come to trust that someone else cares about them, their choices, and their future. They know that someone will be checking in on them and holding them accountable to the goals they are setting along the way.
According to Katherine Jackson, Roosevelt’s community school director:
It’s so important for these children to see that someone from the community – in addition to their family members and teachers – cares about them and wants them to succeed. Our students look up to their breakfast buddies because they bring unique perspectives on life’s challenges and demonstrate the rewards of hard work. The volunteers also set an example for our students, inspiring them to give back to the community. In fact, many of our students envision themselves being breakfast buddies when they grow up too.
Before-school programs are also beneficial to the adults who volunteer. Giving to others in meaningful ways helps us feel more personally satisfied. This, in turn, has been shown to increase professional productivity. Air Products employees have gained as much as they have given by dedicating an hour a week to connecting positively with a young person. According to Mary Beth Golab, in the beginning of school year employees and students are a little apprehensive about getting to know each other. As the year continues, wonderful friendships form between the buddies and their students. The Breakfast Buddy volunteers have been so enthusiastic and supportive of this program. They really love it!
United Way’s COMPASS Community School initiative focuses on mobilizing the community to become part of the change we want to see. The Breakfast Buddies program and any other expanded learning opportunity that engages volunteers in a meaningful way is an opportunity for individuals to accept the invitation and be part of that change!
At Roosevelt, and in several other COMPASS Community Schools, innovative and necessary before-school programs continue to emerge. Walking programsincluding the “Walking School Bus” and Heart Healthy initiatives bring together parents, teachers, and community volunteers to ensure safe travels to school as well as increased physical activity. Reading intervention programs and other literacy-based programs, some provided from within the schools and others by external providers offering support on-site, have also started to take advantage of before-school time to ensure that students are getting the support they need to be successful.
Roosevelt recently won the Coalition’s Community Schools Award for Excellence based on the strength of its partnerships, the ability to align services with the school’s core mission, the engagement of families and the community and highlighting exceptional outcomes.

Click here and here to read more about Roosevelt and the United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley’s COMPASS Community School initiative.

This blog was originally published by the Coalition for Community Schools and is reprinted with permission.