WALLA WALLA -- To get herself through a tough time, Marilee McQuarrie thought outside of herself.
When her sons went to live with their father about seven years ago, McQuarrie said, she struggled to get through it.
"It was really hard for me to lose my boys like that," she said. When a good friend suggested she volunteer at a local school, McQuarrie followed through. She volunteered at Berney Elementary, and eventually became a friend to a child through Friends of Children of Walla Walla, a service she continues to offer today.
"It's been a life-saver for me," she said about volunteering. "Being able to focus on somebody else and their situation, and focus on them, rather than think about the difficulties that I'm going through, made a huge difference."
Friends of Children of Walla Walla is a nonprofit social service agency that seeks to match area children with adults who commit about an hour a week in friendship to a child.
McQuarrie began with one young friend, and is now friends with McKayla, a student at Berney. Together they might watch a movie, or do crafts, or cook.
"We are working on a quilt. We love to cook," she said. "I am teaching her to make lace, I have given her one lesson on my spinning wheel and we play computer games together."
McQuarrie and McKayla were first paired when McKayla was about 6; she is now 10. McQuarrie said McKayla lost her mother at a young age, but has a supportive family that includes her father, siblings, and other relatives.
Still, the friendship McQuarrie offers is unique.
"I don't want to be someone who disciplines or is in the leadership role, anything like that. I just want to be her friend," she said.
While getting the chance to work through her own tough time, McQuarrie also learned the value of giving time to a child.
"I think the value of Friends is these children have someone who is focused just on them," she said. "Sometimes kids get lost in a family. They need someone to just focus on them."
McQuarrie has also spent several years as a volunteer tutor through Children's Home Society's program at the Farm Labor Homes. McQuarrie tutors a 12-year-old girl in math and also science.
"She asked me one time, 'do you do this to get paid, or do you do this for fun?'" McQuarrie said. "And I said, 'I don't get paid, so it must be for fun.'"
January is National Mentoring Month, and area leaders of mentoring and tutoring groups are reminding community members that volunteering with children, as a mentor or tutor, can have a lasting, positive impact.
The Walla Walla Mentoring Coalition was established about one year ago, and represents leaders from mentoring and tutoring programs at Walla Walla University, Whitman College, Children's Home Society and Friends of Children of Walla Walla.
Mark Brown, director of the Friends program, said there is a constant need for volunteers. Local groups are looking for not just volunteers, but often men who will serve as positive role models to boys.
Volunteers are screened and then go through training before being paired with students. After that, volunteers must commit to meeting regularly with youths.
"Commitment is important," said Mariela Rosas, whose after-school and summer programs at the Farm Labor Homes are in constant need of volunteers.
Eric Bridgeland has a family of his own and a busy career as the men's basketball coach at Whitman College. But Bridgeland committed to being a Friends volunteer almost as soon as hearing about the program about two years ago.
"I wanted to sign up right away," he said. "I truly think it's a magnificent program. I absolutely love doing it myself."
Bridgeland also got about half his team roster, or about six students, to volunteer as well.
Much of Bridgeland's drive to offer his friendship to local youth is inspired by his toddler daughter, whom he described as special needs.
"To see her happy, to see someone believe in her, just makes my day and makes my world, makes our world," he said. "To be able to give that to a child, or a teenager or a youth, at least one hour, two hours per week. It just makes my world go round. I just love the idea of it and I just believe in it."
Having positive adult role-models made a difference in Bridgeland's own childhood.
"Some of my greatest mentors were my coaches," he said.
Bridgeland and his friend, 12-year-old Cody, might go fishing, or shoot hoops, or play board-games over ice cream sundaes at McDonald's.
"We hang out, and I'm just there for whatever he wants to do," Bridgeland said. "I just want to let him know that I am always there. No matter what's going on, he can always text me or call me. If there's just one person that's there for you that's not going to judge you, that's invaluable."
Bridgeland said dedicating an hour or two a week to a child is an easy commitment with lasting benefits.
"Everyone deserves to have at least one friend that doesn't judge them and will always be there for them, and genuinely care for them," he said. "Everybody doesn't have that. I can't imagine the young boy or girl not having that.
"You can't have enough mentors in your life, or friends in your life."
Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8317.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Friends of Children of Walla Walla: 527-4745
Children's Home Society: 529-2130