East Grand Rapids — Walk into the East Grand Rapids High School cafeteria during the lunch hour, and you’ll see students laughing, chatting, and playfully bickering over scores at the ping-pong, air hockey and foosball tables stationed throughout the room.
The cafeteria has seen a resurgence in student activity this year, thanks to a grant from the East Grand Rapids Schools Foundation that funded the purchase of the game tables.
It’s a noticeable change compared to the last few years, said David Dublis, student services coordinator, who applied for the grant and oversaw the installation of the tables.
Dublis said the cafeteria was a bit of a ghost town during the early pandemic years.
“They kind of shut the hot lunch program down. It was all just a sack-lunch,” Dublis said. Gesturing to the kitchen, he said the area was “all closed off, the gates were down, the lights were off.”
“If kids brought a lunch, they could come and sit here if they wanted, but there really was nothing for them to do outside of that,” he added. “You could go walk off campus for lunch and get something around here, but that’s very expensive, especially out here in East.”
A lot of students, especially underclassmen, would come to the cafeteria and sit aimlessly.
“It’s a long lunch, too — it’s like an hour. If they eat in 20 minutes, it’s kind of like, ‘OK, what am I going to do?”’
‘It’s something that’s interactive, and we get to compete against each other as friends. It’s better than just sitting there looking at TikTok.’— Andrew Chambers, East Grand Rapids High School senior
‘A Good Change’
Dublis targeted the cafeteria as an area that could use some attention as soon as he started in his position in 2021. When hot lunch resumed, and more students started coming to the cafeteria, he started working on bringing in activities that would keep them active, bring them together, and maybe get them off their phones.
He applied for the $3,500 grant last March, and when the funds came in he used them to buy the game tables, “just to kind of give them something to do.” The materials arrived during the summer, and the tables were ready for use when school started on Aug. 21.
“And it’s really been great,” Dublis said. “It’s been a good change. I like what I’ve seen so far.”
Before school, during lunch, after school and during free periods, there’s a noticeable shift in the energy of the cafeteria, as high schoolers flock to the tables to socialize and pass the time.
“They’re loving it, every day,” Dublis said.
“It’s something to do during lunch if you don’t have homework,” said senior Max Fechtner after a ping-pong match.
Max said prior to the installation of the game tables, there “wasn’t that much to do” for students during downtime.
“Usually we’d just sort of sit here on our phones, but now, we’re up, moving, and being more social,” he said. “I like being up and active.”
Max added that the games have broadened his social circle.
“I’m friends with seniors, and we’re also playing with a sophomore, because you can have people from different grades that you wouldn’t normally hang out with,” he said.
The sophomore, Rocco Carnevale, values the opportunity to connect with others too.
“It gets you talking to people and interacting,” Rocco said.
Senior Andrew Chambers — Max’s opponent at the ping-pong table — said the games offer an “an entertaining break” from schoolwork.
“It’s something that’s interactive, and we get to compete against each other as friends,” Andrew said. “It’s better than just sitting there looking at TikTok.”
That’s exactly the kind of thing Dublis was hoping to hear. He’s keen to inspire any student activity that doesn’t involve screens, and he said students are starting to catch on to that as well.
“I think they’re realizing there is a disconnect, socially, when they’re just on their devices all the time,” Dublis said. “And there’s just a little bit of a push I’m seeing, to just kind of step away from that, at least when they’re with their peers.”
Dublis said the response to the games has been so positive that he’s open to expanding the cafeteria setup.
“We’re just starting. It’s kind of like a pilot, in a way. And I think we can add more and change things up as we go, as long as the kids are being responsible and using it, which I think they are,” he said.
Dublis might survey students about what they’d like to see added. He’s open to suggestions.
“As long as it’s not, like, video-game related,” he said. “We want to take them away from that.”
Of the current slate of games, ping-pong is the most popular.
“I didn’t know ping-pong was that big of a deal, but they love ping-pong,” Dublis said. “We have another table and I think we’re going to set it up.”
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