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ISSUE 120 VOL 16 PUBLISHED 3/23/2007

Buddies build bonds

By Lyndel Owens
Contributing Writer

Friday, March 23, 2007

Project Friendship matches St. Olaf students with elementary and middle school children in Northfield to develop a mutually beneficial relationship that helps the child cope with challenges. The purpose of the mentor program is to encourage the children to develop confidence and character. For a few hours each week, buddies meet on campus to hang out, play outside or do an activity together with which the child feels comfortable.

Anna Dutke ‘08 emphasized the friendship’s important impact. “Through forming a strong friendship with St. Olaf and Carleton students, the kids form a strong bond with their buddies and are able to trust in the advice and guidance provided,” she said. Project Friendship is based on the concept that early positive self-esteem is highly critical to healthy personal development.

The program’s pamphlet explains a child’s typical predicament: “The children in Project Friendship are like children everywhere who may be struggling with stress in the family, be new to the community or simply have trouble making friends at school.” School counselors, teachers or parents refer children to the program with the hope that a consistent, caring friendship will “help them feel more comfortable in social situations,” according to co-president David Harris ‘07. In order to achieve their goal Harris said that, “We provide a really accepting, positive friendship.”

St. Olaf students have been mentoring through the Project Friendship program for 40 years and have maintained an honor house for decades, save this year. This school year all the children in the program were assigned buddies because participation is high (70 students at St. Olaf), though more male applicants are needed, along with Spanish speakers. Most children speak English well, but Spanish proficiency often eases communication with parents and enables a mentor to have cultural understanding.

Students apply to be mentors early in the fall and are screened by background checks before being paired. “We try to match [people] in their first or second year of college so they have time to build a relationship,” said Harris. Children are dropped off on campus to be with their buddies, which also helps them be more familiar with a college setting.

Paul Olson ‘07 appreciates a varied perspective as well. “Living on the Hill makes it more and more important to regain contact with the outside world,” he said. “I felt the program called to something my life was missing. I gave it a try and have not looked back.”

The relationship that develops is intended to be a stabilizer in the child’s life – a bond the child can count on and have faith in. Harris remembers the joyful surprise his buddy showed when Harris appeared at his home to celebrate his birthday. “I couldn't imagine why he was so surprised that I came after I told him I was going to, but it was obvious that he had been disappointed many times before, and a reliable friend was exactly what he needed,” Harris said.

Though it takes time to build a trusting relationship, Dutke said that many buddies also communicate when one or the other is not in town. “During the summertime we exchange phone calls and an occasional letter or postcard to help pass time until I return to Northfield,” she said.

Besides meeting weekly, there are monthly events for all pairs to attend. In February, everyone was invited to watch a movie in Viking Theater, and a late April trip to the Como Zoo will be the annual spring field trip.

Both college and elementary school students always enjoy the time, regardless of the activity together. Dutke said that she and her buddy of three years “always leave planning what we are going to do the next week, already looking forward to another hour, where nothing else matters except that everyone is having fun.”

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