Leni Kuhn, 5, leaps from her art table, races into the kitchen and presents a drawing to her mother, Hannah. The Crayola artist has drawn two stick figures — one tall, one small. Both have blonde hair, blue eyes and big smiles. Leni doesn’t title her piece. She doesn’t need to.
Last fall Leni, a kindergartner, was matched with Caroline Monchamp, an eighth-grader, as part of a buddy program at Carondolet Catholic School in Minneapolis. Throughout the year, poised and polite Caroline has joined spirited Leni for school activities, including concerts, sporting events, even the building of gingerbread houses.
Twice a month, Caroline sits with Leni at mass, to demonstrate how to behave. The two girls clicked immediately, and not just because they look like sisters.
“To be together,” Leni says, when asked what she likes best about Caroline. “To do whatever we do.”
Caroline feels like the lucky one.
“It’s amazing and so fun to learn about [kids] and be with them,” said Caroline. “Being with Leni not only taught me great responsibility, but how to react, how to help kids.”
Principal Sue Kerr likes to hear it. The kindergarten-8th-grade buddy program began “to keep those eighth-graders innocent, being the oldest kids in the school,” Kerr said. “For the little ones, it builds confidence.”
Many buddies keep in touch long after the school year ends. Some, like Leni and Caroline, find that school hours aren’t nearly enough to be together. Caroline now baby-sits for Leni and her two younger sisters, Polly and Addie.
On Halloween, Caroline waited for “Super Girl” to arrive to trick-or-treat before heading out with her own friends. At Christmas, the two exchanged Christmas gifts.
On a recent afternoon, Caroline has dropped by Leni’s house in St. Louis Park to color and play dress-up. Leni resembles more a spinning top than a child, so happy is she with her buddy’s arrival.
“She does not stop,” Caroline confirms. “One thing after another. My mom tells me that Leni reminds her of what I was like in kindergarten.”
Upstairs in a spacious playroom, Leni strokes Caroline’s long blonde hair, then runs off to gather an armful of books.
“Do you know I used to have these exact books?” Caroline says.
They read briefly before Leni decides to try her own hand at fiction-writing.
“There was a witch,” Leni dictates as Caroline writes. “She wanted to get through.”
“What did she want to get through?” Caroline asks.
“The gate!” Leni shouts.
Leni grabs a pencil as Caroline spells out “G A T E” — a word that opens up the world. Leni gets it right. Caroline smiles.