Eight students crowded into a small conference room just outside the main office at Eisenhower Middle School. They sat around the table, chatting and picking out their favorite marker colors. Then they got to work. In small groups, one or two students quizzed another on their favorite things and drew the answers on big sheets of paper. Marquise Dye, 13, explained to the group that Jayden Simmons, 12, likes the movie The Nightmare Before Christmas and junk food.
"His favorite foods, it goes on and on, but I got down that he likes pizza, cake, ice cream and candy," Marquise said. "He prefers chocolate."
On his first day at Eisenhower, Jayden found a new buddy in Marquise thanks to Eisenhower's new Ambassadors Program. The program pairs kids at the school with new students to help them make friends and find their way around their new environment.
The ambassadors also represent a step toward stamping out bullying, said dropout prevention specialist Paul Burke, who runs the program. The preteen years of middle school, and all the social angst that can come with them, challenge students, he said.
"I always tell parents, nobody has a 20-year middle school reunion," Burke said. "Eisenhower wants to be proactive instead of reactive."
Burke started the program this year, inspired by a similar one for the children of military families through MacDill Air Force Base.
The program consists of 24 student ambassadors right now. Burke leads them in formal team-building activities, but also encourages the ambassadors to just say hello in the halls to kids they might not know, or to sit with new people at lunch.
Burke said some kids end up dropping out because they don't feel like they have a support system at school. The program aims to give kids that support and curb bullying by encouraging them to look out for each other.
"A kid who is being bullied feels alone," Burke said. "This program is designed so that kids don't feel alone."
Daisy Rodriguez, 12, said she knows how it feels to be bullied, so she became an ambassador.
"To see new kids and how they're treated, it reminds me of how I was," she said. "I don't want them to feel the way I did."
After moving from Missouri, 11-year-old Briana Alford felt uneasy about attending Eisenhower this year. Her school in St. Louis wasn't as big and diverse, she said.
"I was really nervous about the school, and how my teachers would be and how the kids here would be," she said. But being part of the Ambassadors program has helped her make friends and meet people from other grades.
"The first day, when I look back at it, I was actually nervous for nothing," Briana added.
Burke wants the Ambassadors program to extend beyond new students. He encourages the students to keep an eye out for any kids in their classes who look like they might be lonely or struggling.
"They understand their role is to reach out to other kids," he said.
Jack Ryan, 11, did just that when he noticed a girl in his fourth period class who kept to herself. She'd tap her fingers and frown as if she seemed nervous, Jack said. After he told Burke about the girl, she went to some of the program meetings.
Ryan also eats lunch a lot with his buddy Brandon, who is new this year.
"I can tell he's getting better when he's not coming over, and he's talking at his table to friends he's actually made," Ryan said.
Burke hopes to continue to grow the program next year, and identify kids who might benefit from it by the first day of school. He's also involving the community. The SouthShore Chamber of Commerce donated club shirts, and hopes to have the kids come to some of their meetings to talk about the program, said executive director Melanie Morrison.
And plenty of Eisenhower students want to become ambassadors, Burke said.
"It's kind of contagious. When you do something good, more people want to be a part of it," he said. "It's amazing how many kids want to help."
Keeley Sheehan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2453.