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Bonnema teaching life skills as Big Buddy

LUVERNE -- Teacher and scholar Forest Witcraft once said, "A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove ... but the world may be different because I was important i...

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George Bonnema and his Little Buddy, Will Soto, look over some of the vegetable plants and flowers growing in Bonnema's greenhouse. Bonnema has been a Big Buddy in Rock County for the past three years. (Julie Buntjer / The Globe)

LUVERNE - Teacher and scholar Forest Witcraft once said, “A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove … but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a boy.”

For George Bonnema, a volunteer with Big Buddies of Rock County, the words seem fitting as he continues to develop a mentoring friendship with a boy he was paired with three years ago.

There are so many things he wants to teach now 7-year-old Will Soto - things like playing catch, riding a bicycle, being respectful, focusing on a task and playing fair in board games. With time and patience, George is hopeful for success. After all, he has both the time and patience to foster this budding friendship.

And then there’s Will, a shy young boy with bright brown eyes and a dimpled grin. He seems to light up when he’s around his Big Buddy George, and said he wants to remain buddies until he’s in high school.

Typically, participants maintain a buddy relationship until the child reaches fifth grade, but George says, “If Will wants to continue on, I will not abandon him.”

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A match, a mentor Lisa Nath coordinates Big Buddies of Rock County and paired George and Will when the child was in kindergarten.

At the time, George was enjoying retirement but felt a call to help after being part of the Ridder Church Renewal Team at American Reformed Church in Luverne. The program stresses missional living and encouraging people to help others.

Though he’d once turned down a request from Nath to be a Big Buddy, George changed his mind.

“I decided I could make an impact on someone’s life,” he said.

Already aware of the program’s concept - his sister-in-law, Ruth, was a mentor to a young boy for many years and the Bonnemas had hosted him over Easter break one year.

“He was a freshman in high school and had never driven anything before - not even a lawnmower,” George recalled. “I taught him how to drive. He practically put me through the windshield the first time - he didn’t know what gentle was.”

The boy dreamed of being a chef, and it was Ruth who took him to cooking classes and encouraged him. He earned a scholarship to Le Cordon Bleu and is now a chef in a St. Paul restaurant and pub.

“If Ruth hadn’t given him that opportunity, I don’t know what would have happened to him,” George said.

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If he can impact a child, George wants to do so.

When he and Will met for the first time, the child was “scared to death” of George and extremely quiet.

“I think Lisa reads personalities well - she knows my values,” George said. When Will’s mom joined the church he attends, it created more opportunities for the two to interact.

Now when they get together, they play games like Trouble, Connect Four, Chutes & Ladders or Candyland. During the warmer months, they’ve gone fishing, played catch and fed the chickens. Last month they decorated cupcakes and made Valentine’s cards.

Nath plans group activities about once a month as well. They recently toured The History Center in Luverne, as well as the Brandenburg Gallery and Herreid Military Museum.

“I don’t have any grandkids, so it lets me do a bit of that type of activity,” said George, whose wife, Corrine, has long had a bond with a trio of Luverne siblings not affiliated with the Big Buddies program.

“The biggest thing for me is to see that this kid gets a chance in life,” George said. “His mom can only do so much.”

People helping people Big Buddies of Rock County currently has 16 pairings, according to Nath, adding that there’s always a need for adult volunteers to be mentors.

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To become a mentor, men and women must complete an application, agree to a background check, provide references and proof of insurance (for transporting their Little Buddy) and be interviewed by Nath. She also provides training and guidelines about being a Big Buddy.

The program is guided by a board of directors whose role, among others, is to select the annual Big Buddy of the Year. In January, George Bonnema received the honor.

“He was selected for his outstanding volunteering in the community,” shared Nath. “He’s always helping out and offers ideas for activities for Big Buddies. He’s willing to give his time and talents, and it doesn’t have to be something fancy. He’s just a really strong leader - a male role model for his Little Buddy.”

Nath said the mentoring program is just as rewarding for the adult volunteers as it is for the children.

“I think initially people are scared to commit (she asks for a one-year commitment), but after they have taken the step to be a mentor, they will love it - it’s very rewarding,” she added.

Anyone interested in more information about becoming a Big Buddy in Rock County should contact Nath at (507) 283-9165 or email li.nath@isd2184.net .

Love for Luverne George grew up on a farm in rural Inwood, Iowa, his father hoping he’d take over the family farming operation one day.  

“Dad was sure I was going to take over the farm and I was sure I wasn’t going to farm,” George shared. “My dad complained bitterly about farming his whole life. Farming would have driven me nuts.”

George’s passion was in floriculture, and his dream was to own a greenhouse and operate a flower shop. Not long after he graduated from the floriculture program at Kirkwood Community College, he and Corrine purchased the greenhouse and floral shop in Luverne. That was in 1974.

The couple poured their heart and soul into the business while also raising their son, Grant. They expanded the greenhouses, built a garden center and established a landscaping business.

As Grant grew older, he wanted to pave his own career path and it wasn’t in floriculture.

“He sharpened every lawnmower blade, kept every machine operating,” beamed George. Grant now now works in machines and computerized tools and resides in Dearborn, Mich.

Before the Bonnemas had really talked about retirement, they discovered options.

“Five years ago we were approached by four people to buy the shop,” George said. One of them was the young man hired by George at age 14 to work in the business.

“I trained him in landscaping and encouraged him to go to Southeast Vo-Tech in Sioux Falls,” George said. In 2012, the Bonnemas sold the business to him and his wife.

The sale brought an end to a 38-year career for the Bonnemas, though they haven’t strayed far. They own a three-acre plot south and west of the business, where they live and tend to an acre-sized orchard and an acre-sized garden where they grow strawberries, raspberries, grapes and a wide array of other fruits and vegetables. They also have a shed onsite where they raise laying hens and sell eggs year-round.

“Everything is landscaped,” George said of their land. “This is paradise for us.”

The Bonnemas are vendors at both the Luverne and Rock Rapids, Iowa, farmers markets, and Corrine facilitates the market in Luverne. She also makes homemade fruit pies to sell at the markets from June through October.

Meanwhile, George can often be found outdoors. He maintains the plants at Flag Park, at the corner of Kniss and Main, in Luverne (he designed the project for the city), and is the landscaper for the American Reformed Church.

“I’ve become a professional gardener,” he said. “I just think weeding is pure joy. God gave us all of that to work with, and it’s just so much fun.”

George recently became involved in a Blandin initiative in Rock County - Leaders Partner in Poverty. The working group will, with Blandin guidance, choose from the initiatives of dental care, housing and assistance programs to address poverty.

“Luverne has been a wonderful community for us - i just think the world of it,” George said. “There’s so much stuff happening here right now it’s incredible.”

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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