Like Pied Pipers in camouflage, the men of the 191st Infantry Brigade draw a crowd of curious kids when they walk onto a school playground.
“It’s the uniform,” one of them quips, as small knots of students gawk and slowly inch closer to the military men.
The soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord feel at home at Evergreen Elementary School in Spanaway. They visit weekly during lunchtime to serve as mentors, friends, sounding boards and – on this sunny Wednesday – added players in a game of recess kickball.
They call themselves Lunch Buddies. Each soldier is paired with a student to mentor, but they frequently participate in group activities as well.
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“I wanted a chance to interact and have a positive impact on them,” said Capt. Jared Jeppson, a member of the Utah National Guard who’s on assignment at Lewis-McChord.
“I like it because they get to play with us,” said third-grader Brayden Lee-Hines.
Out in the Evergreen playfield, Brayden catches a fly, then throws out a runner. He exchanges high-fives with a couple of soldiers.
Jeppson encourages another boy who’s less successful at the game: “Nice try! You’ll get it.”
The Lunch Buddies program started this fall at both Evergreen, in the Bethel School District, and at Harvard Elementary in the Franklin Pierce School District.
Maj. Paul Robinson, public affairs officer for the brigade, drew on an idea he heard about in another Puget Sound-area school district. That program has civilians meeting and mentoring kids during lunch.
“Why not recruit soldiers to do the same?” he thought.
The program has been rewarding, he said.
“I thought it would be a success if I got seven soldiers involved,” he said. “The response has been overwhelming.”
So far, there are 19 soldier Lunch Buddies from Lewis-McChord between the two schools. A few are from a Stryker brigade, but most are from the 191st – a mixed unit of active duty and reserve soldiers that trains Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Navy and other members of the military.
Word keeps spreading about the volunteer opportunity, and more soldiers are signing up. Robinson would like to see Lunch Buddies spread to more schools.
At Harvard, Principal Paul Elery has seen good things happen when soldiers stand in as positive role models for kids.
“When soldiers meet the kids in the main hallway, it’s a really big puffyour-chest-out sense of pride for the kids,” Elery says. “They go through the lunch line together and eat lunch together. It makes them feel special.”
One student at the school north of Midland, who had a mom deployed with the military, was paired with a female Lunch Buddy soldier so she could continue to have a positive female presence while her mom was away.
One student who struggled with repeated absences last year started coming to school more regularly after being paired with a soldier.
Another girl was at first refusing to return to class when recess ended. Just one simple warning – “I’d hate to have to tell your Lunch Buddy that you’re acting this way” – brought her into compliance, Elery said.
Teachers recommend to the Lunch Buddies program students who need extra support because they’re struggling with academics, behavioral or social issues. The soldiers are great at helping struggling students “see success and feel a sense of ownership,” Elery said.
Lawrence Robair, a sixthgrader at Evergreen, certainly feels it. He and his mentor, Staff Sgt. Scott McKendall, clearly share a bond of friendship, laughing and joking easily together.
“He likes the same stuff that I like,” Lawrence said.
The boy even feels comfortable enough with his mentor to call him simply “McKendall,” just like in the Army.
McKendall also has a nickname for Lawrence. He’s noticed that the boy always looks out for his fellow students, retrieving those who lag behind.
“I call him Scout,” said McKendall. “Because he’s got leadership qualities.”