Denis Estimon never felt more lonely than when he was surrounded by noisy classmates in his elementary school lunchroom, afraid to join in on their spirited conversations and draw attention to his broken English and Haitian accent.
Feeling alone in a crowd was the worst emotion imaginable for a 6-year-old boy, he says today. That’s why he was inspired to start the “We Dine Together” club with several friends at his high school last year, hoping that none of his classmates would have to eat lunch in isolation.
“Long-lasting relationships are built from across the table,” Denis, now 18 and a senior at Boca Raton Community High School in Florida, tells PEOPLE. “We want to get kids to come out of their comfort zones and realize that they have a lot in common, no matter where they’re born, what they’re background is, or whether they speak with an accent. In one way or another, we’re all alike.”
At Denis’ high school, where there are nearly 3,400 students, “it’s hard to get to know each other sometimes,” he says, “but imagine what would happen if you had lunch with somebody new every day. It’s a wonderful thing to watch people come out of their shells and make new friendships.”
More than 60 teens are now members of “We Dine Together,” using their lunchtime each day to search the school’s cafeteria and courtyard for students who are eating alone.
“I know what it’s like to feel shy and by myself,” one of the club’s co-founders, Kinsley Soorestal, 17, also from Haiti, tells PEOPLE. “When my family moved here nine years ago, I was always the kid lunching alone. Now that I’m making a difference, it feels good to say, ‘Hey, I gotcha, man. What’s your name? How are you doing?’ “
“You can tell they really appreciate it,” he says. “Maybe for the first time, they feel like they belong.”
Kinsley, along with Denis and two other students, Allie Sealy and Jean Max Meradie, came up with the idea for the club while taking summer classes last year at Propel, a nonprofit that helps disadvantaged teens to get a step ahead in school.
When one of their teachers, Greg Francis, asked what single thing they would most like to change about their high school experience, the students agreed that lunchtime could use some improvements.
“I told him, ‘On one side of the cafeteria, you have the white kids, the popular kids and the well-off kids, and on the other side, the new kids, the kids without money, the kids with disabilities and the non-white kids,'” says Denis. “A lot of those kids felt like they didn’t have a friend and were eating alone.”
With students from more than 70 countries attending the mostly-white school, “Denis and his friends decided to become true agents of change,” Greg Francis, now an after-school instructor at the high school, tells PEOPLE. “They’ve reached out with compassion and extended a hand, ensuring that every student at Boca Raton is accepted. I feel like a proud parent to all of them.”
Over pizza or sack lunches, club members aim to spend their lunch period with a different student every day, “letting them know they have a friend,” says Jean Max, 19.
“Everyone has something they’re dealing with,” he says, “and sometimes all they need is somebody to listen. Probably the best thing is how many new friendships we’ve made doing this. I’m no longer the quiet kid, afraid to speak out. Every single day now, I’m meeting somebody new and sharing ideas.”
One of those new friends is Nathaniel Hopwood, 18, who often dined alone until he shared pizza one day with a couple of club members. Now a group member, he seeks out others who remind him of how he felt when he was a new student.
“The club has introduced me to so many different people that I didn’t know before,” he tells PEOPLE. “I’ve definitely gained so much doing this — it’s cool to have such a diverse group coming together to share lunch and stories about their lives.”
With other schools now interested in starting their own “We Dine Together” clubs, Denis Estimon says that Boca Raton students are now hoping to take their idea to the next level and hold a National High School Dining Day on May 22.
“From coast to coast, we want every high school across the country to share our message of unity and acceptance,” he says. “Even for 30 or 45 minutes, imagine what a difference that could make in lunchrooms across America.”