Denis Estimon is the creator of We Dine Together, a program that aims to combat social isolation within schools to make sure no-one has to eat alone. Denis and his family immigrated to the U.S. from Haiti, when he was in the first grade. He faced the challenge of making friends not in only In a new school but in a new culture. Now he helps students make connections with others. Anna first discovered We Dine Together while watching CBS This Morning and was blown away by what Denis is doing. Denis is also the director of Be Strong, a national non-profit organization focused on preventing bullying using a student-led approach.
Tell us about your story and how you came about creating your mission:
Denis and his family moved to the United States from Haiti. He had the challenges of both being the new student at school and being in a completely new environment. Since he didn’t speak English he struggled to connect to people and form relationships. He spent lunchtimes and recess alone. This experience inspired him to start We Dine Together to create a culture of the community in schools. School is one of the most segregated environments we experience. For a new student or a student who has been experiencing social challenges it can be a safe haven. A student can come into a new school, not knowing anybody and find a We Dine Together Club that they can go to.
We walk around with a smile on our face but it’s really hard when we feel lonely inside:
Denis agrees. The problem we are facing today is that people can show the best of themselves and can act like everything is going well but truly not everything is not always fine. Now, when something is going on in their lives, students do not turn to people, they turn to social media. They don’t learn how to build real relationships with people. Part of the Be Strong State Rep program is to work in 3 key areas every month – advocacy, acts of kindness and awareness. For the acts of kindness they do simple daily acts such as hold the door open for 10 strangers and look them in the face. Because even small acts like that make a difference.
What are some things you teach with how to actually approach someone who is sitting alone?
Often what you say is not as important as just saying something. It is important to step out of our comfort zone. Denis’s family stepped out of their comfort zone to come to a new country. We have to step out of our comfort zone and try to connect with people.
You must hear those stories all the time, about how somebody said hi to someone and how that led to another thing.
When Denis first founded the club, he approached a young man. They didn’t have much conversation as the young man was very shy. Denis felt slightly rejected but he went back the next day and the next day and the next. At the end of the week the young man asked Denis why he was sitting there and he told him they were friends. The kid started crying. Denis was the first person in 3 years to sit with him. The following week 2 other students sat with them. The young man had invited them.
What made you approach the same person, even though you were in some ways getting rejected by them?
Denis thought that if he didn’t do it then who would approach the kid? He didn’t want to wait for somebody else to do it. It took him about a week to approach him.
I saw that people of all different ages are involved in the We Dine Together initiative. What age does it start?
There is really no age limit on it but what they’ve been seeing lately is that the program works best with 4th-12th grade. They have also gone into elementary schools and taught kids about resiliency.
How does someone become a part of We Dine Together?
The first step is nominating a student and then that student goes through an interview process and find out about the program and how it works. As a state rep they then need to find 3 other people to form a club. These 3 people should be from different communities – athletics, academics, creative or disabilities. After the group is formed they do their monthly challenges based around advocacy, awareness and act of kindness.
How many schools are you in and how have you grown?
We Dine Together is now in over 170 schools. They have mostly been growing through word of mouth and students have just been starting clubs. Kids are going into other schools and starting clubs there.
I want to ask you about a story I heard, where a lady took an apple and cut it in half. Can you tell me about that?
This is a story that changed Denis’s life. If you cut an apple, you can count the number of seeds in apple but you can’t count the number of apples in a seed. The seeds you plant today will bring about harvest later on. Denis wants people to plant a seeds of generosity, kindness and compassion.
Do you have mentors that support you?
Denis has had many mentors throughout his life and every mentor has taught him something different. The things they did when he was younger planted the seed for who he is today.
The students that are leaders in your program – what changes are they experiencing?
Overall growth. They are learning about different people and different cultures. They are building relationships with people that they wouldn’t otherwise. By being able to build relationships on a school campus they will be able to do this in their careers in the future.
What happened after you were featured on CBS Good Morning?
Before the CBS episode, he did not see many people with the idea of welcoming people and building relationships over the table. The CBS piece created a snowball effect of welcoming other people and building relationships. Denis saw other clubs being created with a similar mission. It also created interest in We Dine Together and bought more reps to the organization.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
One person can’t help everyone, but everyone can help one person.
Where do you see this in 10-15 years? What impact do you think you can have as a culture?
Denis wants to see the rates of suicide and depression decrease. Not just because of his organization but because of all the organizations that are working to combat this issue. He would like to see a We dine Together club in every school. Then students wouldn’t have the fear of going to a new school and wondering who they will eat lunch with. He’d like to completely eliminate that narrative.
Tell us how we can get involved