They Changed Their School. Could You?

This year, reach out to someone new—just like these teens did—and you may never be the same. (WARNING: SERIOUS INSPIRATION AHEAD!)

Peyton Klein, 16, and Khawla Issa, 17, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 

Last November, Peyton Klein sat in her Pittsburgh homeroom and wished there was something she could do. The rest of the class was filling out a worksheet, but a classmate from another country was struggling. “She was frustrated and my teacher was frustrated, but they were having a hard time communicating,” the 16-year-old explains. “I wanted to help, but I didn’t know the girl’s name or what she needed.” 

So Peyton reached out to the ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers and students in her school, and they came up with a simple solution: weekly meetings between ESL and English-speaking students. “I realized that if American-born and immigrant students interacted more, it would help us all to overcome cultural intolerance,” Peyton says. 

Last December, she formally launched Global Minds Initiative—a school club that brings together native and non-native English-speaking students to talk, take field trips, and hear guest speakers. It now has more than 50 members, with 10 chapters set to launch in other schools. 

As for that student who first inspired Peyton? She’s Khawla Issa, 17, a Syrian refugee—and now one of Peyton’s best friends. “We went from just saying hi to each other to hanging out all the time,” Peyton says. 

The two teens love dancing and making awesome food together. “Khawla has taught me so much— about Islam and things like why she wears a hijab ,” says Peyton. “She’s also the best cook I’ve ever met.” For Khawla, Peyton is an ally in class and in life: “I’m learning everything from her.” 

Both girls feel pride knowing they’ve brought together classmates who might not have spoken otherwise. “I don’t think students know how much power they have to make their school more open-minded,” Peyton says. “When you step out of your comfort zone, magic happens.” 

At One High School, No One Eats Lunch Alone
We Dine Together is a club that promotes friendliness at lunch. This video shows some of its members in action.

Kenny Kinsey, 17 (left), and Jeremy Holst, 16, New York City 

“U-S-A! U-S-A!” Jeremy Holst, 16, screamed from the sidelines as the clock counted down. The timer buzzed, and he and his teammates stormed the rink to congratulate their goalie—but the next person Jeremy ran to was Kenny Kinsey, 17. “We did it! We won the bronze!” Jeremy said, giving him a high five. 

It was March, and Kenny and Jeremy had traveled from New York City to Austria to compete in the Special Olympics World Winter Games as part of a floor hockey team​that combined students with and without intellectual disabilities. “Our paths might never have crossed if it wasn’t for this opportunity to play together,” Jeremy says. After all, he goes to a private school at one end of New York City, while Kenny attends a special needs program at a public school all the way across town. 

But the two boys hit it off from the very first practice. “We connected over our love of sports— and now we’re like any friends,” Jeremy says. 

"Try something that your friends aren't doing but that you're interested in. It's a great way to meet new people."—Jeremy

And that friendship just might have helped them bring home the bronze. “In a team meeting, Kenny spoke about how Jeremy and other team members had accepted him even more than some of his schoolmates,” coach Joseph Stewart recalls. “That speech really brought the team together.” 

The victory in Austria was an intense bonding moment for all involved, but the biggest lesson these two athletes learned is more valuable than any award. “We give so many labels to people,” Jeremy says. “But it turns out that no matter how different we are, we can all find something to bond over.” 

We Dine Together, Boca Raton, Florida

When the lunch bell rings at Boca Raton Community High School, a massive school nearly 3,500 students strong, kids spread all over: Some head to the gym, some plop down in the cafeteria, others lounge in the courtyard. “You’d think with so many kids, everyone could find at least one person to sit with at lunch,” says Denis Estimon, 18, a recent graduate of the Florida school. 

But as Denis and his friends Allie Sealy, Jean Max Meradieu, and Kinsley Florestal noticed, most kids filed into their cliques in the cafeteria—and left a few students sidelined, eating solo. “High school is hard enough,” Allie says. “No one should have to feel alone.” 

So the foursome created a club called We Dine Together to combat that isolation. In addition to weekly meetings to discuss issues at their school, club members simply reach out to their classmates at lunch. 

"If we can help one kid make one or two new friends, then we've accomplished our goal."—Allie

“I’ll approach someone who’s alone and ask him to come join my friend and me, or I’ll sit down and just start asking questions—what year are you, what are you into?” Denis says. 

Sure, it can be awkward at first, but gradually these students warm up, says Allie. And now, the club members can see the whole school changing. “I had people coming up to me in the hall to tell me they included a solo classmate in their lunch group,” Denis says. “I truly believe that this movement has the potential to change the world.” 

Other schools agree: 150 of them have signed up to start their own chapters! 

Help your school go from cold to kind.

ON YOUR OWN 

Start small. Simply say hi to a friend you’ve drifted from. Make more eye contact in the halls. Ask your locker neighbor what he thought of that pop quiz in Spanish. “Even the most intimidating-seeming person will warm up to friendly, low-key gestures,” says psychologist Lucie Hemmen, author of The Teen Girl’s Survival Guide.

AS A CLASS

Talk to your teacher (in-person or even via email) about pairing or grouping students randomly for projects—so people are forced to get to know each other.

THROUGHOUT SCHOOL

One thing all of the students here had in common? Supportive faculty. So consider talking to a teacher or principal about starting a chapter of We Dine Together or Global Minds in your school. (See We Dine Together’s Facebook page and Globalminds.world for more info.) Or propose a club, activity, or fund-raiser that would be meaningful to your student body!

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