2017-01-12 / Schools

Student group brings inclusivity

Personal tragedy inspires TOHS senior to make a difference
By Dawn Megli-Thuna


LUNCH BUNCH—Senior Sean Turner, right, visits with freshman Jake Suchman at a New Year’s pizza party during the Lunch Bunch on Jan. 6 at Thousand Oaks High School. The Lunch Bunch was created by Sean so students wouldn’t have to eat lunch at school alone. 
RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers LUNCH BUNCH—Senior Sean Turner, right, visits with freshman Jake Suchman at a New Year’s pizza party during the Lunch Bunch on Jan. 6 at Thousand Oaks High School. The Lunch Bunch was created by Sean so students wouldn’t have to eat lunch at school alone. RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers The morning Sean Turner was supposed to take the SATs this past September, he received news that a longtime friend had died by suicide.

The night before, Turner, a senior at Thousand Oaks High School, had invited the friend to attend a prep football game. The friend asked for a ride, but Sean declined because he had already arranged a ride with someone else.

The next day, his friend was dead.

Then and there, Sean, 18, decided he had to do something.

“I just don’t want anyone to feel like (my friend did),” he said.

Soon after his friend’s death, Sean learned about Sit With Us, a teen-developed app that helps students connect with each other so they don’t have to sit alone at lunch. Sean contacted 16-year-old SWU inventor Natalie Hampton. Once the victim of physical and verbal bullying, the Sherman Oaks High School junior created the app after she’d spent two years eating lunch at school alone. Sean was inspired by her efforts, but he wanted to create something all his own.

So the Lunch Bunch was born.

Working in conjunction with Link Crew, a program that helps freshmen transition during their first year of high school, Sean enlisted other students to invite people they saw sitting alone to have lunch with them.

Thirty students helped launch the club with an inaugural pizza party on Halloween.

The group meets at lunch in a classroom five days a week. There’s no pressure to talk or participate. Heads buried in cellphones are welcome.

“It’s a hangout, not group therapy,” Sean said. “It’s about making friends.”

The goal is to gradually do that in a nonjudgmental, comfortable environment.

First-time students fill out questionnaires, which Sean uses to send out invitations for club events held during second-period homeroom.

Science teacher Ashley Cooper is the faculty adviser who hosts the club in her classroom. She said the invitations are an important part of how the club operates.

“Maybe a kid has never gotten something before. It’s powerful just to be noticed, just to be heard,” she said. “Students know what students need best.”

Having transferred from Westlake High School the second semester of his sophomore year, Sean knows firsthand what it’s like trying to fit in at a new school.

“It’s scary,” he said. “I know it’s scary.”

And not just for freshmen.

Cooper said she’s surprised by the wide range of students who attend Lunch Bunch. She originally expected the club would support freshmen who were struggling to transition to a new school, but a variety of students—including some sports team captains—attend on a regular basis.

Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. A grateful parent called Sean’s mother, Mielle, to say her son no longer comes home from school crying.

A father of a student on the baseball team donated $100 to the club. It funded their first pizza party.

The mother of Sean’s friend who died also made a donation to show her support.

Mielle Turner said that organizing the club has helped her son deal with the loss.

“I’m very proud of him,” she said. “He’s helping others, and I know it’s something that’s benefiting him too.”

Sean is graduating this year with plans to attend Moorpark College in the fall but said he hopes this simple idea will catch on at other campuses, as well.

“I want kids to feel like they have a place,” he said. “I don’t like to see people sit alone.”

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