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Pals volunteers serve as positive role models to at-risk children

By Heather Graves

BROWN COUNTY – Sledding, picnics, baking, fishing, shopping, driving lessons, helping with homework, day trips to the beach or the Milwaukee zoo – these are just a handful of the memories De Pere resident Maureen Oldenburg has been able to share with her Pal over the last 12 years.

“I always tell people that we get more than we give,” Oldenburg said.

Oldenburg, a retired nurse, along with her husband, Milt, are volunteers with the Pals Program – A Big Positive in a Little One’s Life.

The program started in 1972 as a service of Brown County Health and Human Services Department.

“It has been a very rewarding experience for me and my husband,” Oldenburg said. “Hopefully, for my Pal, too, who is now 18.”

Through the program, children, who are referred by social workers, are matched with an adult volunteer, couple or family.

“Most referrals come from the social workers within our child protection unit,” said Volunteer Coordinator Jenna Durkee.

Mentors spend time with their matches doing recreational or learning activities at least two or three times a month – many hosted free of charge by program organizers.

Durkee said mentors help children adjust to the separation or loss of a parent, enhance self-esteem and confidence and learn new skills.

For Oldenburg, the relationship between her and her Pal is so much more than that of a mentor and mentee.

“She is like a granddaughter to us,” Oldenburg said. “She has a lot to deal with in her life. We plan to support her in any way we can. We more or less have adopted the whole family – especially her sister.”

Oldenburg said being a mentor gives her the opportunity to show her Pal, and her sister, another way to live.

“They are a part of our family,” Oldenburg said. “The girls like to cook when they visit and play games. We have gone on many day trips and also camping.”

Oldenburg said the program has also helped educate her in the ideas and beliefs of a different cultures.

“I have a better understanding of the Mexican people in our community,” she said.

One of the aspects that makes the Pals program unique, Oldenburg said, is that it’s open to children as young as 3 years old, as long as they are potty trained.

“The younger a positive role model enters a child’s life the better the outcome, I believe,” Oldenburg said.

Unfortunately, Durkee said the program has a lengthy waiting list of boys and girls – ages 3 to 17 – and mentors are needed.

Volunteers complete a brief application, background checks and submit references.

Once a volunteer’s application is complete, Durkee said, orientation and training are provided.

“Given the nature of the children we serve, we do have our volunteers go through an application and screening process in an effort to protect our vulnerable children,” Durkee said.

Durkee said matches are based on compatibility, are reviewed annually and can continue for as long as both partners are interested until the child turns 18.

For more information on the Pals program, or to become a volunteer, visit palsprogramofbrowncounty.org.

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