Photo by Raymond Rendleman

By: Raymond Rendleman
For: Portland Tribune

What’s the coolest lunchtime club at Oregon City High School right now? Bet you wouldn’t have guessed that OCHS’s most popular club is made up of all the kids who had been previously eating alone.

But the numbers don’t lie: 30 students attended We Dine Together in the first lunch period at OCHS last Tuesday, and 40 attended the club meeting during the second lunch period. Shaylee Cooper, OCHS sophomore class president, only set up the innovative program in partnership with the school resource officers for the district at the beginning of this month. We Dine Together is an initiative within Be Strong’s Student State Representative program, and Cooper is Oregon’s student representative. “It’s hard for students eating alone at lunch, and I love making connections,” she said.

OCHS Student Council Advisor Mike Lord said, “She’s one of the most empathetic students I’ve ever had, and her influence is amazing.” We Dine Together sends Cooper weekly activities for the club, and last week food-related conversation was appropriately the suggested topic. The room burst into chatter every time Cooper offered the group prompts like, “What weird food combination do you really enjoy?” and “Do you eat food beyond its expiration date if it still smells and looks fine?” One student who hadn’t eaten with anyone for more than a year said, “Hey, that was cool; I think I made a couple of friends.”

Oftentimes, as Cooper leads activities at the club, OCPD Officers Spencer Rohde and Dave Plummer will roam the halls looking for students eating alone and asking them if they’d like to join the group. OCHS Vice Principal Kathy Johnson has been supportive of the club by eating her own lunches with the group and ordering meals for them.

As for who brought the program idea to OCHS, Plummer credits his wife locating the idea invented by Denis Estimon at his high school in Boca Raton, Florida. After Plummer told his wife about his worries for students who eat alone, she jumped on the internet and found the program that Plummer then brought to the OCHS Student Council. Lord, who said that Cooper was a natural fit to lead the program, shared an inspirational tale from his own family at last week’s We Dine Together meeting. Lord says his daughter is on the autism spectrum and had previous troubles getting motivated to attend her classes at Rex Putnam High School in Oak Grove. But then she asked to join the cheer team, and the coach “without any hesitation said yes,” even knowing her previous social issues, and now Lord’s daughter looks forward to going to school. “That coach saying ‘yes’ not only changed my daughter’s life, it has positively affected the lives of all the members of my family,” Lord said. “Your homework: Think about what little things you have done around here to create positivity and positive change.”

Club member Anessa Chirgwin (who is only a sophomore) was another inspirational story at the club this month since she’s representing OCHS’s varsity track-and-field program at state. She’s known for always going the extra mile on the field and in her contagious positive attitude among team members.
Plummer said that the club could contribute to public safety in that students who are socially isolated are the most likely to commit acts of violence against their fellow students. “What if one of the kids we get to was going down the wrong path, and going to our club really helps?” Plummer asked.

Cooper has lots of ideas for expanding the club next year, including by offering trips to a local bowling alley. The police officers have offered to help Cooper expand the club activities. “The hard part at the end of lunch is that we need to remind all of the students that they need to go back to class,” Rohde said.

Original Article Here

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