Students Offer Peers a Safe Place to Get Away

The room is buzzing. Kids chomp on pizza as they play chess, a game of “Sorry” and laugh at videos of people doing goofy things. Others chat cheerfully.

It’s just what Emma Fraam had in mind when she organized Lunch Get Away – a place for Cedar Springs Middle School students to go and be themselves. Every Tuesday and Thursday, a couple dozen students eat lunch and hang out in the art room, finding here a more inviting environment than the noise and social pressures of the crowded cafeteria. Emma affectionately calls it “a converging of the misfits.”

“For some kids, lunch time is really hard,” says Emma, an eighth-grader, during a recent Lunch Get Away. “They’re not with anybody. This is a place they can come talk with each other.”

They can also play chess, a subsection of Lunch Get Away spearheaded by seventh-grader Matthew Reed. He figured some students would like to spend their get-away time prepping for a seventh- vs. eighth-grade tournament in a challenging and instructive game.

“I just thought it’s something not many people know how to do,” says Matthew, who comes from a family of chess enthusiasts.  “I thought it would get a couple people more open to it.” Its problem-solving properties could also help some students in their classes, he adds.

Consider Matthew and Emma committed leaders at Cedar Springs Middle. They are part of a Student Leadership Committee that meets after school every other Thursday. Between 20 and 30 students meet to plan service projects, form friendships and hatch ideas like Lunch Get Away.Emma Fraam and Matthew Reed are lead organizers of an alternative lunch room at Cedar Springs Middle School

Providing Service to School and Beyond

The leadership committee nurtures “a lot of confidence-building,” says faculty adviser Jodi West.

“They’re feeling they can make decisions and drive what they want their school to feel like,” says West, a community school coordinator with Kent School Services Network. “It’s a nice safe place for kids to be who don’t do sports” or other after-school activities.

The group organized a food drive at Thanksgiving for nine families, with the remaining donations going to North Kent Community Services. It has also initiated “candy-grams” for students to send encouraging messages to each other. An anti-bullying video and a mentoring program for special-education students are in the works.

Teacher Heidi Schuitema brings some of her special-education students to Lunch Get Away, which she also supervises. She has seen students go from feeling anxiety at lunch as “the worst part of their day” to forming friendships in the art room.

“For kids that are apprehensive to talk in the lunch room, a game can be that common ground,” says Schuitema, who advised the leadership committee last year. “I really wanted it to be a peaceful setting for kids who couldn’t bear it out there. Maybe it will help them grow enough to go back out and do OK.”

Language-arts teacher Pat Weiler, who helped Matthew organize the chess tournament, says he was “amazed at the level of skill these kids have.” He calls Lunch Get Away “a nice break for kids. It’s a vehicle for them to have fun, to learn and to socially interact.”

Having the Bravery to Believe and Act  

Lunch Get Away sprang from small-group discussions in the leadership committee last year, and Emma took the lead on organizing it.  She saw a need among students who had no one to sit with at lunch, may have felt picked on and didn’t like the loud background.

“It’s sometimes nice to have a quieter, calmer atmosphere,” Emma says. “This is kind of a safer environment.

“It’s important to me to make people feel comfortable in their surroundings,” adds Emma, who is interested in being a teacher or counselor. “I want to make the world better.”

She and Matthew say they like taking leadership roles both at school and beyond. When asked what constitutes leadership, Emma promptly answers, “The bravery to believe what you think you need to believe and to act upon it.”

Matthew calls leadership “trying to stay on an equal level with everybody in the group you’re participating with. You wouldn’t be a king. You’d either be a farmer or a merchant.”

Emma would like to help dismantle the traditional hierarchy of some students being perceived as better than others. Her goal: “trying to demolish the idea of social classes in public schools.”

Lunch Get Away would seem to be a good start.

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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