Change your lunch plans, change a child's life
Learn how volunteers are making a difference through Lunch Pals.
This article was adapted from AARP’s publication “Where We Live,” which highlights inspiring examples from local leaders.
Raymond James associate Ron Diner with one of his Lunch Pals, Davion.
Ron Diner’s first Lunch Pal was a 7-year-old named Tommy, who lived in a group home. The two met for lunch in a school library, where in the beginning, Tommy liked to sit with his favorite “I Spy” puzzle book across a table from Diner.
After a number of weeks, he moved to my side of the table and put his arm around me, and we did the book together,” Diner recalls. “Was this kid missing somebody? And did he find somebody in me?”
How it began
Lunch Pals was founded in 2013 by Diner – Raymond James’ former head of Tax Credit Funds – and Pinellas County Schools. The program grew out of a partnership between Raymond James and a single elementary school in the Tampa Bay area. The aim was to create a mentorship experience that was easy and obstacle-free for participating adults.
As of 2022, nearly 1,000 Pinellas County students have a Lunch Pal.
“I met with the principal and asked her, ‘What are your challenges? What can I do for you?’” Diner recalls. “She told me, ‘I have kids who are homeless. I have kids who live in motels. I have kids from group homes, lots of single parents.’ She said to me, ‘We need mentors.’ I said, ‘We have 3,000 people at Raymond James. I think I can find some for you.’”
How it’s grown
Lunch Pals now has partnerships with more than 130 companies, churches and local government offices across Pinellas County, resulting in close to 1,000 volunteers, around 100 of which are Raymond James associates.
“People tell me it’s the best 30 minutes of their week,” Diner says.
Dr. Valerie Brimm, Pinellas County Schools’ director of strategic partnerships, says mentoring is one of the best ways to support growth and academic achievement in children.
“It gives students the opportunity to have a personal relationship with individuals who can share about their successes, share about their careers… it’s very powerful,” Brimm says.
How it’s evolved
When COVID-19 caused the suspension of in-person school volunteering in 2020, Lunch Pals went virtual.
“In this current environment, it’s more important than ever that these students are paired up with a consistent, caring adult,” Diner says. Since the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, Lunch Pals mentors have had the option of meeting with their students in person or virtually.
Brimm and Diner also stress the importance of diversity within the mentor pool.
“It is so important for our African American students to see African American mentors,” Brimm says. “Students need to see and hear success and be motivated by individuals who look like them.”
How to get involved
“Too many people say to themselves, ‘I can’t be a mentor!’” Diner says. “But anybody can do this. It’s just a couple of pals having lunch for a half hour a week.”
You, too, can make a difference in the life of a child. To learn more about the program, visit lunchpals.org.