The Friends Program Receives 2018 Healthy Community Advocacy Award
June 04, 2018
Each day, Tammy Lawter witnesses the positive effect one caring individual can have on a child’s life.
Surprisingly, however, the director of the Friends Program in Buffalo County said the child, or Little Friend, often transforms the Big Friend’s life as well.
For its work to promote the personal development of youth through positive one-on-one role modeling, The Friends Program is being recognized with the 2018 Healthy Community Advocacy Award. The award is presented annually to an individual or group who creatively implements programming on behalf of a specific population.
The supervised volunteer program pairs elementary-age Little Friends with Big Friends who meet at least one hour a week throughout a school year.
Lawter, who has served as the director for two years, said the most rewarding part of her position is seeing the Little Friends change over the course of a year by spending time with their Big Friend mentors.
"In the Kearney community, we have a lot of little friends whose background life is not good. They are in foster care, or they live with someone other than their parents. There is just a lot of negativity around them," Lawter said. "To see them grow from being a frustrated, angry child who lashes out at everybody at school and home to becoming a more calm, happy kid who is excited to see their Big Friend every week, that feels so good to see that."
Lawter added that the Little Friends aren’t the only ones who benefit. In Kearney, many of the Big Friends are University of Nebraska-Kearney students. Lawter asks the Big Friends to commit to their Little Friend for at least one school year.
"Quite a few of them really get attached to the kids," she said. "Some of them stay longer. They don’t want to leave their Little Friend and they will stay until they finish college."
Prior to becoming the director, Lawter served as a board member of the organization. She herself is also a Big Friend. "I just love meeting with my Little Friend every week. I have people ask me why I would want to take on any more, but it’s very relaxing to be with her," she said. “It really is an extremely positive thing.”
For the 2017-18 school year, 132 elementary students from Kearney were matched with Big Friends. The Friends program also served 75 elementary students from Elm Creek, Pleasanton, Ravenna, and Sumner-Eddyville-Miller. Lawter said in the rural schools, the Little Friends are paired with junior and high school students who typically meet at the school after classes for activities.
"It works really well for the rural schools to do it this way," Lawter said, "because there aren’t as many activities available in those communities." She said one of her goals for next year is to develop more outings for the pairs to do in those towns.
The Friends Program started in 1978 and receives funding from the United Way and grants, including a Blue Cross Blue Shield “Live Fearless” grant in April. An emphasis is placed on activities that don’t cost money, so the Friends office provides crafts, sporting equipment, and board games to check out. Local museums and the YMCA have donated passes to the program. A grant from the Kearney Area Community Foundation provided movie passes this past year. Group activities include decorating pumpkins for Halloween, a Christmas party with Santa and presents, and an end-of-year party.
Lawter welcomes volunteers.
"It’s good for anybody in the community to volunteer to be a mentor," she said. "So many kids need a mentor. You may not have realized it, but there’s somebody who has been part of your life as a child that you looked up to. Everybody probably had a mentor growing up, whether they met once a week or not. It’s good to be able to give that back to somebody else."