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Bruce Johnson and Cameron Ward of Pine River have been kinship partners for almost four years. Photo by Travis Grimler

With Kinship Partners, you get to pick your family

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Who knew getting kicked off the school bus could have a positive result?

Without that little hiccup, there's no telling what life would be like for two local Kinship Partners. Without it, they might never have met.

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Cameron Ward of Pine River is a fairly normal kid. Going into eighth grade, he has some learning and behavioral quirks. He sometimes has a hard time with good manners or good judgement calls and he can tell some tall tales. But overall he is just like anybody else. He just wants to be liked.

"He tries to fit in, so he'll do most things under peer pressure," said Sarah Jungels, Cameron's mother. "So, he got in trouble. He got kicked off the bus and put on the van. That's kind of how he met Bruce."

Bruce Johnson was a van driver for Pequot Lakes School, and thanks to Cameron's school bus mishap, he became the boy's van driver and friend.

"I got kicked off the bus. He was a van driver. He liked me," Cameron said.

While it could have been as simple as that, it turned out that Johnson and Cameron had some things in common. Johnson had been volunteering with Kinship Partners since 2010.

"Bruce's partnership he had was ending because the boy was leaving. Bruce was looking for someone else," Jungels said.

While Johnson was looking for a new partner, Cameron and his sister, Martika Ward, had just recently signed up to get Kinship Partners.

"My parents live far away. I have some that are gone and some that are far away. We don't have much family here," Jungels said. "(They are missing) some of the support and mentorship that the kids would get, and for Cameron, somebody with a man's perspective that he would grow and learn from."

Martika had been assigned a partner, but Cameron was still waiting. When Johnson offered to partner up with Cameron, it was a done deal.

"I expected him to not like it, because he's bashful and kind of withdrawn from most people. He doesn't get into doing lots of stuff, so I thought he wouldn't like it. But he actually enjoys being with Bruce," Jungels said.

Cameron and Johnson enjoy many pastimes together, the favorite amongst them being fishing.

"I probably get out and do a lot more things than I would do on my own," Johnson said. "Tubing and some of these things. Going down waterslides and things I certainly wouldn't be doing myself if it were just me. We've done a lot of fishing and other things."

For Cameron, who spends lots of time at home with his family, having a Kinship Partner is a great opportunity to branch out.

"It's fun getting out of the house to get fresh air from parents and annoying brothers and sisters," he said.

"It's more of a one-on-one time with the kids, and I think kids can benefit from that," said Cameron's stepfather, Thomas Jungels.

Cameron and Johnson have maintained this one-on-one friendship even after the partnership became a family affair. When Martika's partner moved out of the area, Johnson's wife, Marge, was prepared to step up to the plate and take Martika under her wing.

"All our kids are in the Cities. They are growing and we don't see our grandkids very often. We don't get out too often. We just wanted to help someone out and do different things, kind of work that way," Johnson said.

To maintain the one-on-one attention Cameron and Johnson are used to, the two partnerships don't do much together. Even when they all go to the movies together, the two pairs sit in different sections of the theater.

Jungels has nothing but praise for her children's Kinship Partners.

"(We've gotten) so much. So much. My kids learn a lot from Kinship Partners. Cameron has learned massive skills from Bruce. Fishing, polite manners, building things. Lots of stuff," she said. "I just think my family has really benefitted. It's been really good. My kids have gone through a lot of different stuff. Losing my mother, losing my home in January, to all that kind of stuff. Having Bruce and Marge has always been a benefit. They're always there. It's been bright and positive."

The partnership between Cameron and Johnson is strong, even when they are apart.

"I'd say Cameron accepts it as a friendship. He and Bruce are friends. He looks up to Bruce and respects Bruce. I think he can call upon Bruce and he feels that way, that if he needed something he could call Bruce and Bruce would be there for him," Jungels said.

The relationship swings both ways.

"He's really important. There was a motorcycle accident a couple blocks up from here (the Kinship office in Pequot Lakes). I thought that was Bruce, so I called like two minutes after and asked if he was in a car accident," Cameron said.

"That's kind of neat that he cares enough to wonder if it's me that was involved," Johnson said.

After more than three years together, Cameron and Johnson faced a hurdle over the last winter when Johnson and his wife became snowbirds. Formerly of Breezy Point, they now camp during the summer in Nisswa.

"When they decided they would be snowbirds, at first I think everybody was a little worried about that. When I brought it up to my kids and said we could put them back into a different partnership or put them on the list or not have partners during these months while they were gone they were adamant," Jungels said. "They wanted to stay with Bruce and Marge. That was no big deal they were going to be snowbirds."

"He'll probably get tired of that. He might want to get someone else here once we get deeper into it," Johnson said.

In response, Cameron shook his head, laughed and insisted, "No, I won't break up."

The Johnsons stayed connected throughout the winter with postcards and a special gift.

"We've been over to the pool over there in Jenkins at the AmericInn. They seemed to really like the pool. I thought that would be a nice thing to give them swimming lessons," Johnson said.

Though Kinship Partners are encouraged not to spend money on their partners, the Johnsons paid for swimming lessons for Cameron and Martika while the couple was in Florida. This summer, Cameron has had a few occasions to show Johnson all he learned.

Jungels said the Johnsons have just become another branch of the family.

"Any time is a good time to be mentored and have somebody to look up to. You gain so much," she said. "The families gain something. Bruce and Marge are part of our family now. It's turned into something bigger than just them picking up my kids a couple times a week. I mean, they're just there. They are part of our everyday conversation. They are part of our dinner conversation. They're part of what the kids look forward to, being with them. Cameron has got some self confidence he was lacking when he first started. He knows better manners than he did before. Bruce brings out the best in him."

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