Willmar Lunch Buddy Program that pairs Ridgewater and elementary students celebrates 25th anniversary

The Lunch Buddy Program, a Ridgewater College/Willmar Public Schools program, has paired college students and elementary students for 25 years. Students eat lunch and spend time together once a week.

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Liera Barnes, center, pets a mouse with her lunch buddy Kylie Arndorfer, right, while visiting with veterinary technology students during Lunch Buddy day at Ridgewater College on Thursday, April 13, 2023.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — The school bus pulled up in front of the student center at Ridgewater College Student Center, and more than 30 excited elementary school students jumped off.

They were greeted by hugs and high fives from their big buddies, college students who volunteer to have lunch with a kid every week.

In April, the Lunch Buddy Program brought the little buddies to campus. The visit and campus tour is the highlight of the year for the program.

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Heavenlee Halvorson, left, creates a rainbow of colors after pouring vinegar into a graduated cylinder filled with milk of magnesia during a science experiment at Ridgewater College during a Lunch Buddy Program visit Thursday, April 13, 2023.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

The Lunch Buddy mentoring program is celebrating its 25th year of pairing big “kids” and little ones to spend a little time together.

The college and elementary students eat lunch and then choose an activity. They play board games or cards, run in the gym, make bracelets or draw and color. Some read, some build with blocks.


The trip to the campus lets the little buddies see where their friends go to school.

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Markus Citterman looks at the skeleton of a dog while visiting Ridgewater College's Veterinary Technology department during the Lunch Buddy gathering on Thursday, April 13, 2023.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

The Lunch Buddy Program began in the 1990s with a phone call from an elementary school to Ridgewater sociology instructor Lori Park-Smith — did she know a college student who would come to the school to eat lunch and spend a little time with an elementary student? She did.

The arrangement worked well, and a couple more students were paired with kids.

The following school year, the program grew and got its name, Park-Smith said at the luncheon. The campus trip was added later.

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Students and their Lunch Buddies walk across the campus of Ridgewater College on Thursday, April 13, 2023, during a gathering of the mentorship program that pairs elementary and college students.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

She called the program an important collaboration between Ridgewater College and Willmar Public Schools.

It wouldn’t be possible without the work of the elementary school child guides — Heidi Burton at Roosevelt, Leah Thorpe at Kennedy and Ashley Larson at Lakeland, Park-Smith said.

To the little buddies, she said, “Always remember that they are there for you. If you have a problem, go to your child guide. If you need something, ask your child guide about it.”

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Letika Martin, right, smiles while listening to the heartbeat of Kaleb Krupa during Lunch Buddies at Ridgewater College on Thursday, April 13, 2023.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune
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The college filled the morning with tours of various campus departments to show the elementary students what they could consider studying when they get older. Some of the little buddies said they had never been to the campus before.


They posed for an outdoor group photo before splitting into groups for tours.

In the photography department, each big buddy/little buddy pair posed for a photo.

“You can study to be a photographer,” said Mikiaela Meyer, a Ridgewater admissions specialist who had studied photography at the college.

Abby Clancy, 19, of Willmar, who is studying law enforcement, and her buddy Athena Vallejo, 9, a Kennedy Elementary fourth-grader, were waiting to get their photo taken. Clancy said she had known about the program, because her younger brother had had a buddy.

“I just like being with kids,” she said. They said they talk about “everything,” including families and animals, when they have lunch.

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Athena Vallejo pets a passing tortoise in a vet tech classroom during Lunch Buddy day at Ridgewater College on Thursday, April 13, 2023.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Caleb Krupa, 19, of Spicer, waited with his buddy Markus Citterman, 8, a second-grader at Roosevelt Elementary. Krupa is taking his general liberal arts and science courses with plans to study nursing.

“I like eating lunch with him and playing in the gym,” Markus said.

Krupa called having lunch with Markus “the highlight of my week.” If he’s having a tough day, it always helps to go to the elementary school, he added.


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Hailey Arends, 10, left, hugs her Lunch Buddy Azure Staab as children arrive at Ridgewater College on Thursday, April 13, 2023.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Other stops on the tour included nursing and vet tech departments, the science building, the art gallery and the theater.

In nursing, each little buddy donned a child-size mask and gloves. They used stethoscopes to listen to each other’s and their buddies’ hearts. They also learned about bones, eyes and organs.

Veterinary technology students showed skulls of a cat, a “regular” dog and a flat-nosed dog. The kids petted a mouse, a rat and a red-footed tortoise.

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Emerald Naw, 5, left, and lunch buddy Sah Ley Paw pose for a portrait together during the Lunch Buddy day at Ridgewater College on Thursday, April 13, 2023.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

The tortoise could feel his shell being rubbed, they learned. He would stick his head out to show he enjoyed it.

Little buddies saw chemistry and biology demonstrations in the science building.

Science instructor John Benson told them, “In chemistry, we like to mix things and see what happens.” He had them pour vinegar over baking soda, making it fizz.

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Veterinary technology student Holly Tavary talks to students about animal skulls during the Lunch Buddy day at Ridgewater College on Thursday, April 13, 2023.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Then they poured vinegar into a cylinder of water and milk of magnesia. A pH indicator in the cylinder turned the liquid from blue to a swirl of orange, green and yellow, then back to blue.

In the biology classroom, they looked at animal fur and skulls, ostrich eggs, seashells and a starfish. Virginia Larsen, doing a great mad scientist impersonation, showed them how an open-ended bag of bubble wrap can suffocate animals. She had them promise to rip open the bags to protect wildlife.


They met artist Ana Serano in the art gallery displaying her works. Colorful drawings of birds were popular with her young fans, because they could press small boxes on the wall to hear the birds’ songs.

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Ridgewater College outreach and admissions specialist Mikiaela Meyer shows Markus Citterman, at right, and his lunch buddy Kaleb Krupa, at right, their portrait during Lunch Buddy day at Ridgewater College on Thursday, April 13, 2023.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Serano said she had fielded lots of questions about which painting or drawing was her favorite.

They went through improvisation exercises in the college’s theater, miming activities suggested by another person who answered the question, “What are you doing?”

The day wrapped up with a pizza lunch and a bus ride back to school for the little buddies.
At lunch, Park-Smith called each buddy pair to the front of the room so big buddies could introduce themselves and their young friends.

Park-Smith praised the big buddies for the time they spend in the program. They are busy students, she said. Some are athletes or involved in other organizations, and nearly all also have jobs.

Several big buddies are high school students attending college to complete their general requirements. Others are also taking general classes preparing to transfer to study business, psychology, nursing or social work.

After their friends left, several big buddies talked about why they participate in the program.

Sufy Harvi, 22, studying business, said he wanted to give back. It’s important to work with kids, “because they are going to become the community,” he said.

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: or phone 320-214-4340
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