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SLU Buddies learn life lessons from north country school children

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CANTON — Education is a two-way street — the teacher does as much learning as the student.

Each week, about 100 St. Lawrence University students leave their Canton campus and travel to public schools in the area to mentor children.

“It is a way for St. Lawrence students to give back to the community,” said Danielle McBride, president of the SLU Buddies program. “I think it’s about developing a kind of committed, engaging personality and a way to be challenged.”

The SLU Buddies program is a student-run group of volunteers dedicated to providing companionship, tutoring and good examples to schoolchildren.

“We have a volunteer coordinator to oversee the program right now. However, her position was cut, so it is becoming a student-led program,” Ms. McBride said.

She said the program, which she said is similar to the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program, is open to any St. Lawrence University student.

“From St. Lawrence, anybody can apply. We review. We ask for recommendations,” she said. “They then are matched with a student from an elementary school.”

University volunteers work in Canton, Heuvelton, Brasher Falls and Ogdensburg schools.

“We also have interest in a program starting next fall in Colton,” Ms. McBride said.

Children are recommended to the program by their teachers, guidance counselors and parents.

SLU Buddies help their buddies with their homework, play in structured activities and serve as mentors, role models and friends.

“These students are usually elementary and middle school age,” Ms. McBride said. “Oftentimes they are at-risk children. Others are just looking for friendship and to build a relationship.”

The activities often depend on the needs of the individual and school district. Volunteers in Canton, for example, often engage their students in social activities, Ms. McBride said.

“In poorer districts like Ogdensburg and Heuvelton that have a lot of at-risk students, it is more academically based,” she said. “It is very casual and informal, like trying to encourage conversation.”

In Ogdensburg, the program serves students making the transition from sixth to seventh grade, when they enter high school.

“It is not an easy transition. They are exposed to a lot more when they enter high school,” said Maria R. Trummer, an SLU Buddy. “It’s important that there’s something for kids to do after school so they don’t fall in with a bad crowd.”

SLU Buddies are required to be in the program for a minimum of two consecutive semesters. They meet once a week for an hour session that is prearranged with school officials.

Many of the volunteers are interested in careers that involve working with children, Ms. McBride said, but more important are the life lessons taught from mentoring students.

“The opportunity to develop these relationships requires dedication and can be challenging at times, but the rewards are transformational,” she said. “The individuals that you have an opportunity to work with are inspirational.”

The volunteers have been in higher demand amidst a budget crisis that has area schools cutting after-school programs.

“I think they are cutting a lot of their after-school programs, and this is where the program falls,” Ms. McBride said. “We’re getting a lot of interest from districts like Colton. There are directors at the school that provide support and encouragement. I think we’re trying to reach out and look for ways to help.”

The program is operated on a shoestring $5,000 budget, funded through the university’s student activities fee paid each year with tuition.

“It has been challenging for the past few years because of budget cuts,” Ms. McBride said. “We take school vans, snacks, activity money. We try to get students on campus at least once a year for an end-of-year celebration.”

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