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Adamaris Martinez and Esmeralda Sanchez could hardly contain their smiles Friday afternoon. Seated at the center of an "Ellen DeGeneres Show"-themed lunch table, the pair of El Camino Junior High School students led a half dozen of their classmates and new friends in a game of "never have I ever" — a popular variant of truth or dare.

Holding ping-pong paddles that read "have" or "have not," Adamaris, Esmeralda and their new friends played along as teacher Erin Reaves ran through a list of questions.

"Have you ever felt bad about yourself?" Reaves asked. Eyes darted around the paddles; more than half said they had.

"In asking these questions, we want to show students that they have more stuff in common with each other than they think," Reaves said. "It shows them that they're not alone."

Combating the feelings of loneliness and isolation was the central message of Friday's special lunch. For the second year, students and staff proudly declared to the campus that "No One Eats Alone," a national day encouraging students to welcome new friends and classmates to their lunch table.

"We have been talking to the students a lot this year about embracing and celebrating our differences," said Irene Palacios, school counselor and adviser to the El Camino Student Council. "No One Eats Alone Day fits in nicely with that message of inclusion. The students at El Camino are working together to be kind to each other."

As one of the students who helped coordinate the event, El Camino eighth-grader and Student Council President Bridget Anastacio said her experience of eating alone was one of the reasons she took on the project.

"It really sucks eating alone," Bridget said, calling it awkward. "You really want someone to be there for you and laugh with." 

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Seated at themed lunch tables (like Adamaris and Esmeralda's "Ellen"), students navigated the sometimes-awkward and potentially nerve-wracking boundary crossing of acquaintanceship to friendship with ease. Supported by El Camino staff, more than 500 students — even Bridget, who had little time to sit — left El Camino's cafeteria richer in friendship.

"I made five new friends today," she said. "Seeing every single student smile and have fun is amazing."

Counselor-adviser Palacios said she hopes the event will trickle out into the community and into the students' daily lives.

"The most rewarding path in life is to choose to include someone rather than exclude them," she said. "It sparks a change for the person you include and it sparks a change in yourself."

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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Education Reporter

Santa Maria Times reporter Mathew Burciaga covers education for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.