Rising Boston University sophomore Rachel Harris and her elementary school mentee connected via Zoom recently to work on their science-fiction story.
“We only have the first two chapters done,” the theater arts major says with a laugh, revealing a bit of the story line, which takes place 100 years in the future
Harris, who lives in Colorado, and her mentee, who lives in New York, have also baked vanilla cupcakes and made friendship bracelets through the online mentoring program HomeBuddies.
Cofounded by a group of six college students from Vermont’s Middlebury College and one from Columbia University shortly after the pandemic started, HomeBuddies facilitates virtual group and one-on-one mentorship relationships between college students and kids in grades K-7.
In this new socially-distanced world without playdates, sports games, classroom connections, or birthday parties, their goal is simply to be friendly older-sibling figures kids can connect with, learn from, talk to, or create with, a few times a week.
“It really began when we were all sent home from our schools — we were all alone in our houses watching the news every night and trying to figure out how we could help,” said HomeBuddies cofounder Katie Koch, 19, of Hadley.
“We wanted to use our strengths and passions and experiences to help. We all care a lot about kids. ... HomeBuddies was the idea we had to help families and the kids whose worlds were being turned upside down,” said Koch, a rising junior at Middlebury majoring in psychology and minoring in education. She also works part-time at a Vermont preschool while in school.
The “common thread” among the cofounders — Koch, Una Darrell, Paulina De Seve, Katie Beadle, Ernest Robertson, Cecilia Needham, and Valentina Hogenhuis — was they were all “involved with mentorships in one way or another,” Koch says.
Koch, for example, volunteers in a Middlebury mentoring program, and also loved mentoring through Big Brothers Big Sisters when she was a student at Deerfield Academy.
In addition to one-on-one sessions, HomeBuddies, which launched in June, offers group activities: arts and crafts, storytelling, yoga, science experiments.
Koch said they’ve folded origami, made paper-snake chains, “dinosaur handprints,” and cloud dough (“like a lighter Play-Doh”), friendship bracelets, unicorn wind socks, straw rockets.
In science, they’ve concocted “oobleck” (the slime from Dr. Seuss’s “Bartholomew and the Oobleck”), learned how clouds make rain and about dinosaur fossils, asked why sharks float, built tinfoil boats and tested how many pennies they could hold. Once, Koch gathered sea critters to take kids on “a virtual field-trip.”
On Wednesdays, it’s yoga with Hogenhuis, who leads kids through belly-breathing, sun salutations, guided shavasana meditations, and mindfulness practices.
Meanwhile, one-on-one sessions are more tailored to the individual child’s interests, says Koch. Parents have different reasons for signing up: “Often they say, ‘I want my child to spend less time alone in the house,’ or ‘I want him to use his voice more in conversation.’ ”
Operating on a pay-what-you-can model, the mentees live around the US, from Vermont to Texas, Koch says. Because the cofounders plan to keep HomeBuddies operating at least through the end of the pandemic or beyond, Koch says they’re aiming to become an official 501c3 nonprofit.
When summer vacation ends, HomeBuddies plans to transition their group sessions from a summer camp vibe to a model that functions “more like an after-school activity,” she says. “Many parents have shown an interest in having their child have a set thing to do after school as a kind of replacement for the sports and playdates that won’t be able to happen.”
Via social media and word-of-mouth, the group has recruited college students as volunteers, bringing their field of 19- to 22-year-old mentors up to 25, hailing from Rhode Island to California.
BU’s Rachel Harris, for example, discovered HomeBuddies via Facebook and applied in June.
For both mentor and mentee, Harris says, “It’s nice to have a scheduled thing in your day, to talk to someone outside your house, to work on something. I love it.”
As do the kids, says Koch:
“You can sense it in a session — when a kid logs on and smiles, and is so excited to see you. … There’s a bond that forms. That older-sibling relationship is something we strive for, in terms of building that trust and knowledge of one another.”
Koch just loves knowing HomeBuddies might be “making some kind of difference in these kids’ lives at a time that I imagine can be difficult and lonely. It’s a connection in a time when connections can be hard to come by.”
Learn more at www.homebuddiesmentoring.com.