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Sep6ThuA youth mentorship program at Westminster Park Corps bridges the generation gap. September 6, 2018 by Kristin Ostensen
Apollo May is, by his own admission, not a great bowler. But then again, neither is Bob Toonders, his mentor at Westminster Park Corps in London, Ont.
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“Both times we went bowling, our team lost,” 11-year-old Apollo says with a laugh. “But we always make the best of it. It’s not about winning, it’s about having fun.”
The bowling night is an annual event that brings together all the children and adults involved in the corps’ PAL program. The program has been a mainstay at the corps for 25 years, connecting 112 junior soldiers with older Salvationists since it began.
“PAL will never go out of style,” says Linda Frost, junior soldier sergeant and co-ordinator of the program. “We all need relationships, and that’s what keeps children in the corps.”
Making a Mentor
The purpose of the PAL program is simple: to foster supportive interpersonal relationships between young people and mature Christians in a corps setting. The name is an acronym for “prayer and love.”
“PAL gives the children somebody they can talk to, who they know is taking an interest in them and is praying for them,” says Melissa Sunnuck, corps leader. “The senior PAL is a mentor, a person outside their family who will support them.”
At Westminster Park, the PAL program is tied to junior soldiership—the children are matched with a senior PAL while taking the preparation classes but don’t learn who it is until the enrolment ceremony.
“We try to keep it a secret,” notes Sunnuck. “The kids are super-excited to find out who it will be.”
Matching each junior soldier with a mentor is a careful process, Frost emphasizes. She consults with the parents and corps leaders, and prays over the possible candidates, before approaching someone. But church members often volunteer to be senior PALs even before they are asked.
“The program has really worked in our corps and I have to admit it isn’t my doing,” says Frost. “It’s the corps people because they’re so supportive of the young people and willing to invest their time.”
There are currently 19 children involved in Westminster Park’s PAL program, which is structured around three major annual events—a back-to-school pizza party in the fall, bowling in the winter and minigolfing in the spring. The events are enthusiastically attended—32 children and adults participated in the program’s minigolf event in June.
“These events, when we all get together as a group, provide a nice way of getting to know everyone, and they give the children something to look forward to,” says Frost.
Between the major events, junior and senior PALs stay connected through the weekly Sunday meeting.
“The kids look forward to seeing their senior PALs each week,” says Sunnuck. “They come through the door, and they’re yelling out their name, making a beeline to give them a hug or to tell them about their week at school.”
The PAL program also features prominently on junior soldier renewal Sunday, when the senior PALs stand and pray with their junior PALs as they reaffirm their Junior Soldier Promise.
“A lot of the senior PALs go above and beyond—for example, attending school events, celebrating birthdays and meeting with the kids outside of corps activities,” says Sunnuck. “It’s great to see those relationships develop over time.”
Apollo was enrolled as a junior soldier two years ago, and his younger brother, Atticus, followed earlier this year. “I felt like that was the next step in my Christian faith,” Apollo says. “I wanted to be closer to God and I loved the Junior Soldier Promise—it made so much sense.”
Being matched with Toonders was a pleasant surprise. “He is a good person,” Apollo says. “He’s very kind.”
Toonders has been involved with the PAL program since 2010; Apollo is his third junior PAL. “It’s a passion of mine to see boys grow up into young men, and make sure they get pointed in the right direction,” he says. “I think that is what the PAL program is trying to do and I take that seriously.”
Toonders’ passion for mentorship is evident in his relationship with Apollo, his mother, Destiny Quackenbush, confirms. As a single parent, she greatly appreciates the role Toonders plays in her son’s life.
“For Apollo, having a male mentor has had a huge impact on him,” she says. “He and Bob have connected so well. It’s great that he always has someone there for him, whether it’s just someone to chat with, or if he has a question about his faith.”
The additional support has been particularly important for Apollo as he has faced difficulties at school. “He gets bullied for not being like the other kids,” Quackenbush explains. “He was depressed, and his mental health has improved greatly since he joined the PAL program. He’s more confident now.”
“It’s good to have someone you can speak to, someone who will understand,” says Apollo. “I feel like Bob understands me.”
Along with emotional support, Toonders helps Apollo in practical ways. “Apollo loves to read and he lost his Bible so I gave him my old iPad,” Toonders notes. “Now he can read his Bible electronically and he doesn’t have to carry piles of books with him all the time.”
As a self-employed contractor, Toonders also shares his business knowledge with Apollo, who dreams of being an entrepreneur himself one day. “It’s interesting to know someone who runs their own business,” Apollo says. “You can ask him questions like, ‘Is it hard?’ and ‘How do you do it?’ and he’ll give you answers.”
“It blesses my heart every time I see the junior PALs go to their senior PALs looking for advice or encouragement,” says Sunnuck. “Those relationships are important, not only to the child, but also to the adult because they pour their heart and soul into these kids.”
After his marriage ended, Toonders did not have as much contact with his children as he wanted. Being a senior PAL gives him another opportunity to be a father figure.
“I have a good relationship with my children now,” says Toonders, “but, in a way, PAL is allowing me to make up some of the lost time with my own boys.”
After two years of friendship, Apollo is confident that Toonders was just the right PAL for him. “I feel like God wanted me to have Bob instead of anyone else, like he specifically chose Bob.”
United in Christ
Though the children officially age out of the PAL program once they are too old to be junior soldiers, Sunnuck notes that the connections continue long after the program ends.
“A long-standing member of the church passed away in April,” she says, “and in his Bible, he still had notes and pictures from his junior PAL, who is now married with children of his own. He kept those things for 15 years because they were that important—he took his responsibility as a PAL that seriously.”
Thanks in part to the PAL program, Westminster Park is a multi-generational corps, which has been a key to the church’s growth, says Sunnuck. “As we look out on our congregation every week, we are blessed to have a lot of children, but we’re also blessed to have a lot of wisdom that comes with age,” she says. “We need all of that to be able to function properly.”
Toonders agrees. “The PAL program is part of what holds the corps family together.”