WALLA WALLA -- Whitman College first-year student Shunei Asao put up a good fight, but ultimately lost the arm-wrestling match against 11-year-old Miya Freeman.
"He was pretty tough, but she's clearly stronger," said Jessi Whalen, a junior at Whitman, who is a mentor to Miya. Whalen cheered her on.
The arm-wrestling challenge netted Miya a ticket good for treats from a prize table. At the arm-wrestling booth, Asao massaged his battered arm during a brief respite.
"These kids are strong," he laughed, having good-naturedly lost battle after battle against tough school children.
The arm-wrestling booth was among several activities that transformed the Young Ballroom at Whitman's Reid Campus Center into a virtual carnival Friday for the annual "Mentees to Campus Day."
Over two hours, children got to bounce in a giant inflatable castle, pose in costumes at a photo station, go "fishing," pin the tail on the donkey, eat popcorn and delight in many more carnival-themed activities.
More than 150 students, each paired with their own mentor, got a chance to explore the ballroom, which brimmed with enthusiastic children eager to earn tokens, claim prizes and snacks, and enjoy all there was to offer.
Downstairs, in a more subdued setting, space was dedicated to arts and crafts projects. And outside, students had the chance to play miniature golf, baseball and even "milk" a cow as part of the carnival activities. The "cow" was a painted wood cutout with cleverly placed water hoses to simulate udders.
Whitman's Mentor Program has deep roots in the community, with about 150 Whitman students paired with children from the city's six public elementary schools and two middle schools. Mentors commit to spending a day or two out of the week at their mentees' school during lunch.
Friday's event gives the younger students a chance to visit mentors at their school, in a festive setting.
Rachel Sicheneder is one of the student interns who runs the mentoring program at Whitman. She said the carnival is probably in its fifth or sixth year, and started originally as a scavenger hunt, but evolved into a popular carnival-themed event.
"It's gotten a lot bigger and better over the years, I want to say," she said. Sicheneder said the mentor program is unique because it is entirely student run, and also because it allows Whitman students to mentor the same child over four years.
John Loranger is a senior at Whitman this year, and started mentoring his freshman year. While his mentee, Joseph, 11, waited in a line, Loranger got him some popcorn.
"I think the program benefits Whitman kids as much as the kids at the schools," he said. Loranger said that for him, "it's been a good way to stay grounded."
Loranger said he started the program with a student who was his mentee for three years until the child moved away.
"That's one of the great things about it, is you have the potential to grow with them from your freshman year," he said.
The mentoring program began in 1994 as the thesis project of then psychology student Jamey Wolverton. After pairing 23 students with elementary school children, Wolverton found that attendance and self-esteem improved among the children.
Sicheneder said the mentoring program is one particular Whitman effort that showcases the positive impact Whitman students are having in the community.
"It does get us out into the community, and it shows people that we are down to earth," she said.