It Starts with You(th): Highland SBHC Maintains Student Connection through Virtual Lunch Groups

In an effort to highlight new and creative ways school-based health staff are engaging youth in conversations around health and well-being, we are starting a series called It Starts with You(th).


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By Kendall Watanabe, Health Educator at the Highland Middle School SBHC (International Community Health Services)

In March of 2019, the staff from the Highland Middle School Health Center (HMSHC) in Bellevue, WA began to notice that some students lacked safe spaces at school, particularly during lunch. Students would often come to the Health Center asking if they could eat lunch in our space in order to escape the bullying, isolation, and loneliness they would face in the school cafeteria. They simply sought a place where they felt valued and welcomed.

In response, the HMSHC staff launched “Health Center Lunch Group” – a safe, trauma-informed space for all students to eat lunch with the Health Center staff. Our Lunch Group was hosted in our annex portable where we decorated the space with input from students to create a youth-friendly environment. Our Lunch Group offered a variety of activities for everyone: A board game station, an arts & crafts station, and a “quiet corner” for students who wanted to read a book or catch up on some school work.

While the Lunch Group was hosted by the Health Center, students were not required to be registered patients in order to join. The HMSHC Staff focused on forming meaningful and trusting relationships with the students at the school. We wanted them to think of us not just as “doctors and therapists,” but rather as people they could trust.

For one 8th grader, attending our Lunch Group served a greater purpose.

“I come to Lunch Group because it is a good way to get away from the stress of school. I actually made some new friends from different grades here and enjoy all the games we get to play. I love how Lunch Group has really connected everyone at the school.”

A 6th grade student shared a similar experience.

“Lunch Group has helped me to make friends and rekindle old friendships. It is my favorite place to go during lunch because it is a friendly and homey environment.”

Just as our Lunch Group program began to gain popularity and recognition at the school, the world as we knew it suddenly changed with COVID-19. School campuses closed, lessons turned virtual, and our Health Center Lunch Group came to an abrupt end. However, if in-person classes could transition to online learning, we realized there was no reason that our Lunch Group couldn’t do the same.

After a month of careful planning, the Health Center launched “Virtual Health Center Lunch Group.” Rather than introducing yet another application for the students to learn and navigate such as Zoom or Google Meet, we used Microsoft Teams – the platform that the students were already accustomed to using for their virtual learning.

We are currently hosting our Virtual Lunch Group twice a week during the school’s 0 Period block, which lands conveniently near the lunch hour. Students simply log-on to our Virtual Lunch Group meeting space on Microsoft Teams, eat their lunch if they desire, and re-connect with their fellow classmates and our Health Center Staff. Each week, we play fun interactive and collaborative web games such as virtual escape rooms, online multiplayer board games, trivia games, Kahoot, etc. We also allow for time at the beginning and end of each Lunch Group session for students to update us on their lives and how they are feeling during these unprecedented times.

One student who was a regular attendee at our in-person Lunch Group expressed her gratitude for launching our Virtual Lunch Group.

“Thank you for making Lunch Group online! I’m having a hard time staying in touch with my friends during this time and it makes me feel really sad. Doing Virtual Lunch Group makes things feel almost slightly normal again.”

The initiation of our Lunch Group Program (both in-person and virtual) has become a mutually beneficial program for both our students and the HMSHC. As a newly opened School-Based Health Center, the HMSHC struggled with clinic enrollment and school-wide recognition upon our opening in 2018. By building meaningful and trusting relationships with the students at our Lunch Group, our clinic was able to integrate into the climate and culture of the school. We utilized this platform to not only recruit more patients, but also promote additional programs and opportunities sponsored by the HMSHC, such as our Health Center Leadership Committee and our Highland Health Center Virtual Summer Camp.

What started as a small initiative to offer a safe space for students to eat lunch quickly transformed into a school-wide program with a greater purpose than we could have ever imagined. As we approach summer programming for the next school year, the HMSHC will continue to explore avenues for the continued sustainability of our Lunch Group. If you would like to learn more about the Highland Health Center Lunch Group and how to replicate it at your school, feel free to reach out to us at: highlandsbhc@ichs.com


Have a youth engagement story you’d like to share? Contact the team at Public Health!

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