By Amy Geiszler-Jones
Photography by Madison Ham
For a handful of select girls at Jefferson Elementary School, having a weekly lunch with Bonnie Bing – the former longtime fashion columnist for The Wichita Eagle and a prolific volunteer with Wichita nonprofits and other organizations – doesn’t mean catching up on the latest fashion or what’s happening in Wichita.
As they share their lunch with Bing and forgo lunchtime recess, the girls share other things that nourish their self-esteem and their character. They learn positive habits. They talk about things that might bother them and things that they enjoy.
It’s a safe place and time, spent with Bing who tells them at the beginning of the school year that they’re there to get to know her and she them, and that’s what makes this pretty special.
They’re always amazed that she’s not paid to be there.
“I think it’s good for these girls to have an adult in their life who’s not their parent or their teacher but someone who by choice wants to spend time with them,” said Bing.
For more than 20 years, she’s been making the choice to be a Girl Power program facilitator and mentor. Sometimes she shares her Girl Power experiences in her occasional lifestyle column in The Eagle.
“Bonnie listens, echoes and drives conversations that build trust,” said Nancy Hinten, executive director of the Pando Initiative, a nonprofit that was founded 27 years ago as Communities in Schools. Girl Power is one if its programs.
While Pando Initiative – whose tagline is connect, engage and thrive – has several programs in which more than 250 volunteers contribute, “Bonnie is our veteran,” Hinten said.
“There are so many girls she’s helped keep on track by helping them build character and making decisions. She creates a curriculum that clicks for the girls … and is helping young girls discover who they are and be inspired.”
Other Pando Initiative efforts include small-group mentoring like that done by employees from Martin Pringle Law Firm and special projects such as Cargill sponsoring a program for 100 kids and volunteers to help in a community garden and learn about eating healthy and sustainability. In another project, Spirit Aerosystems provides weekly mentors for an all-girl robotics team.
The girls in Bing’s group are selected by their teachers who have insight into which girls might benefit from help in the areas of self-esteem, positive image and character building or by having a mentor. They spend about 30-40 minutes every week meeting with Bing during the school year. Among their celebratory end-of-school activities are a fashion show during their fifth-grade graduation and a zoo outing with Bing when school has let out for the summer.
She becomes their confidant and builds trust. The kind of trust that has a scared girl waiting anxiously to speak to Bing because she didn’t know who else to turn to about the abuse she’d witnessed her mother suffer by her boyfriend. The kind of trust that lets a young girl voice concerns that she doesn’t seem to fit in with the other girls or with her family whose attention is now focused on a new baby sister.
As the girls do an activity, Bing slips in life lessons. For example, as the girls work on a Valentine’s Day card, the conversation can turn to discussions on thoughtfulness and gratitude. Sometimes they learn about manners and how to set a table. Sometimes they learn how to have difficult conversations.
On a recent Wednesday, it might have seemed to someone peeking into the room that the girls were doing something frivolous – painting their nails with the bottles of bright colored turquoise and pink nail polish Bing had given them. Inside, a visitor would hear the girls learning about hygiene and grooming and would witness small acts of kindness.
“Oh, look how pretty Ashe’s nails look. That color looks so good.”
“Can we share our nail polish and I paint one nail with Sarah’s color and she can use mine to paint one of hers?”
Bing is no stranger to the classroom. Her first career was as a middle school teacher in Wichita.
“I love kids,” said Bing. She understands that the preteen years are an important transition time for girls, as they figure out who they are and move from elementary to middle school. Over the years, she’s run these Girl Power lunches at Alcott, Harry Street and Lincoln Elementary schools. She’s been at Jefferson for more than five years now.
“You don’t have to have that kind of background to make an impact,” said Hinten. “Every mentor brings in unique experiences to work with kids and to help them thrive. But Bonnie’s in a class of her own.”
The Pando Initiative has a number of volunteer opportunities available for individuals or businesses to participate in and make an impact on local schoolchildren, including lunchtime buddy mentorships, special projects or workplace visits. For more information, call 316.973.5110 or visit thepandoinitiative.org.