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Boca lunch club's mission that no kid should alone goes viral

Posted at 8:24 PM, Mar 28, 2017
and last updated 2019-03-26 02:36:22-04

We know kids can be cruel, especially high school age kids.

And the place where that is most obvious is the cafeteria.

But kids can also be kind, as evidenced by a club at Boca Raton Community High School. The group is spreading a simple message: No one should eat alone.

Every day, We Dine Together club meets for lunch.

"Come in, we don't bite," jokes co-founder Denis Estimon has he welcomes members into their meeting on Tuesday.

Kids file into English teacher Jordan Hernandez's classroom, ready to eat pizza and mingle with kids they've never met before. It's proof that high school doesn't have to be harder than it already is.

"We bring kids from different backgrounds, races into a room together to share a meal. Because we believe long last relationships are built over the table," said Estimon. "We're trying to eliminate the reputation that high school is all about bullies or the cool crowd."

The idea for the club started last summer after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.

"We basically said, the world shouldn't be this way," said Estimon.

Estimon and his classmates teamed up with local educational non-profit, PROPEL, or People Reaching Out to Provide Education and Leadership.

"I threw out the idea -- I said, 'Does anybody on your campus, which is socio-economically diverse, eat alone?" said Gregg Francis, PROPEL's executive director. "You have an opportunity here to be leaders on your campus."

Estimon said it's a problem he's noticed for years on a campus of around 3,000 students -- kids often eating alone.

"If you look at our cafeteria from a bird's eye view -- one side you'll see the popular kids, on the other side, the free lunch kids, special needs, the immigrants, and I said it shouldn't be this way," said Estimon. "[PROPEL] challenged us to do something about it."

And with that idea, We Dine Together kicked off it's first meeting in August 2016. Mr. Hernandez, who hosts the club as a teacher, said they quickly realized that to get kids involved, they needed to build trust with students who were eating alone.

"This reaches kids that are isolated, because studies shows those are the most prone to being bullied," he said. "I think the magic of it is, it's not just one group. Kids come in and see there are different races, ethnicities. There are different types of kids and their interests that are there, trying to figure out who they are and so it is so important that they get to know each other."

Throughout the week, members hit the school courtyard.

"Scope out the courtyard and look for kids sitting by themselves," said Estimon. "I start with a greeting, just let them know they are recognized. Then we come back and say, 'Hey, can I join you for lunch?"

Hernandez said this approach helps cut back on the awkwardness kids might feel jumping into a new and sudden change.

"Kind of build a relationship prior to the club, get to know them on a personal basis," he said. "It's not just like, 'Hey, I see you're eating by yourself! Why don't you join this club?' ...That would be a little weird and we learned that right away. We learned that it's so important to build trust."

We caught up with students during their weekly meeting on Tuesday.

"I don't like to see people by themselves because I know how that feels," said club member Laikah Dens.

For soft-spoken students like Garcendy St. Fleur, an entire school can be turned around for the better.

"Last year, every time we have lunch, I would just sit in a class by myself and use my phone and watch videos or play games," he said. "But this club is a great place and I like it."

Besides lunch, the club hosts activities and discussions around building relationships. On Tuesday, the founders asked members to gather into groups of six and go around the circle and introduce themselves with an adjective that goes with their first name.

"For example, I'm Dazzling Denis," Estimon tells another girl.

Yasmine Motii, a new member, said it's a simple kindness that shouldn't be overlooked at other schools.

"They're so opening and so accepting. I love it," she said of the club. "I think that's how high school should be. I really do. I feel like if every high school is like that, then no one would have any problems."

For others, it's introducing them to people they've never even seen on campus.

"The more I started coming, the more friends I started to make, the more I started to get out of my comfort zone," said Nathaniel Hopwood, a senior.

After a visit from a national news network, the club has gone viral on the Internet, from The Huffington Post to the Independentin the United Kingdom. Estimon said he is getting calls from People Magazine, The Steve Harvey Show and the Ellen Show.

"We've been getting messages from Canada and Australia," he added.

But for the club, it's more than the attention.

"What's more important is the mission and it's about finding those that need to be found," said Hernandez.

And the popularity is paying off. Because of the massive response they've received from teachers, parents and students around the world inquiring about how to start their own clubs, the group plans to host a We Dine Together summit this August.

"We're getting all these different messages from different schools," said Estimon. "We can't wait to replicate it."

The club is inviting students and teachers from all 50 states to Boca Raton for a conference to teach the how start similar programs at their schools.

"Show them how I can make friends, no matter where I'm from, no matter my past, no matter where my future is going," said Estimon. "At the end of the day, we're all human."

Estimon and some of the other founders are seniors and graduate high school this year. They plan to turn the club into a local non-profit so they can help spread the message to other schools in the area.