- Associated Press - Thursday, December 14, 2017

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) - When her two children were in elementary school, Laura Clark would have lunch with them, volunteer in their schools and meet other students and teachers.

“I was really lucky that I got to spend a lot of time at school with my kids, helping them and other kids,” she said.

Now her kids are students at the University of Florida, but Clark still spends time at elementary schools.

On a recent Tuesday, she met third-grader Kalese Seamore, her Lunch Buddy since the beginning of the school year, at Terwilliger Elementary School.

“She’s a real happy, pleasant little girl,” Clark said.

The Lunch Buddies program is part of Superintendent Karen Clarke’s strategies to bolster student reading and to tighten the achievement gap.

Once a week, volunteers spend a lunch with a third-grader at four pilot elementary schools: Terwilliger, Metcalfe, Alachua and Lake Forest.

The volunteers act as a mentor of sorts, talking to students about homework, what they’re learning or just how their days are going. It gives students another connection at school, another person rooting for them.

“There are kids who need attention,” Clark said. “I have some extra time.”

Kalese, wearing a shirt that said, “Make good things happen” and pink nail polish, said she likes talking to Clark about what they have in common. They both wear glasses, and they both like watermelon.

The 9-year-old brought a Lunchables pack and chips from home, and she grabbed a carton of milk from the cafeteria. Clark noticed it wasn’t chocolate milk, but Kalese explained that she doesn’t like chocolate milk. She prefers chocolate muffins.

The two talked about the Thanksgiving break. Kalese isn’t a fan of turkey, she told Clark.

“All I ate was macaroni and pies,” Kalese said.

Before the Thanksgiving break, Kalese said, families were invited to the school for a meal. No one from Kalese’s family could make it, so she ate with a friend’s family.

Clark offered to come to similar events in the future if no one from Kalese’s family could make it. Kalese smiled.

Those interested in becoming a Lunch Buddy can sign up at bit.ly/Lbuddies2 or call the district’s volunteer office at 352-955-7250, ext. 252.

Sometimes, Kalese and Clark talk about bullying. If kids make fun of Kalese for her glasses, Clark tells Kalese to ignore them. Bullies are looking for a reaction, she explained.

The two spent their 30-minute lunch time chatting, Kalese waving to friends she knew entering the cafeteria. One of her best friends moved out of town, she told Clark, but they still talk on the phone.

Clark, Kalese said, is a happy and nice person.

“I wish she were one of my family members,” Kalese said.


Information from: The Gainesville (Fla.) Sun, http://www.gainesvillesun.com

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