Students at Vilonia High School were challenged to think about their need to fit in by 20-year-old Denis Estimon, a speaker and unity activist from Florida, during an appearance on Wednesday in the school’s gym.
Estimon — co-founder of We Dine Together — spoke with the group about immigrating from Haiti in the first grade, what it was like to face language barriers at the young age and other challenges he faced growing up.
“We all have a story,” he said. “We all come from someplace. When you share your story with someone else, it’s actually changing things.”
Growing up on the island, Estimon joked that he not only thought Haitians were the only people that existed but black was the only skin color. When he came to the U.S., he was shocked. But, the different races weren’t the only thing that challenged him.
“I just remember the hardest thing for me was coming to a new school,” he told the group of students.
Estimon said being the new person is hard enough but not speaking English made everything more difficult. He said in class he didn’t want to try and talk, didn’t want to open up at school and ended up isolating himself.
“I remember that feeling of loneliness, and my pain is actually what I use to drive my purpose,” the speaker said.
What’s funny, he added, is going from the kid who couldn’t communicate to now being someone who, last year alone, visited with students in more than 20 states across the country.
Going back to his time in school, Estimon said that because he looked and sounded different, people treated him differently, which led him to treat himself differently.
“Growing up, I spent most of my life trying to fit in with other people,” he said. “I think a lot of us today, we’re still spending a lot of our life trying to fit in with other people.”
Estimon recalled a moment years ago about a pair of popular shoes everyone was wearing that he wanted. His mom took him shopping but the only pair in stock happened to be too small — he got them anyway.
He said he went to school, new outfit, looking “fresh.”
“I used to try to fit in so much every single week my walk would be different,” Estimon said. “I wore these shoes, they did not fit, but I looked great.”
That first day, the shoes were tight, but he kept going. By day two, he said they started getting more and more uncomfortable, developing a limp not to look cool, but because the pain was getting to be too much.
“Long story short, I actually ended up in the nurse’s office,” Estimon confessed. “I hurt my walk because I was trying to fit in shoes that I thought really belonged with me that I had had no business trying to fit into. I think a lot of times, we’re wearing shoes that don’t fit us.”
The longer those shoes stay on, the more we hurt ourselves, he said.
The man recalled what he remembers the nurse asking him: why would he wear shoes that didn’t fit him?
“At that moment I realized something,” Estimon said. “I realized that I was actually not made to fit in because I’m actually custom made. A lot of people in here, you’re trying fit in shoes that you have no business wearing. You’re trying to hang out with people that you have no business hanging out with.”
He said he didn’t blame them for wanting to feel that sense of belonging, but stressed how important it is to not look to people to put value on ourselves, often trying to impress the people who like us the least, ultimately, learning that life begins at the end of someone’s comfort zone.
“Can you imagine where we would be if Michael Jackson tried to be Michael Jordan?” Estimon proclaimed to the room. “Can I tell you the longer you spend trying to be someone else, you’re actually doing the world a disservice. I believe in the potential of every single person in here.”
He told the group to raise their hands, palms up, and look at their fingerprints, pointing out and every one of them were different, that no one person’s prints were the same.
“That’s good,” Estimon yelled. “You weren’t made to fit in; you were made to stand out.”
It’s important to remember they are custom made, he said, and aren’t supposed to fit in and when they figure that out, take it in, that’s when their lives will start.
“The thing I want you to leave here thinking about today is … who do you want to become?” Estimon asked the high school group, encouraging them not to focus on what they want to do, but what type of person they want to be.
Estimon said it’s a blessing to do what he does — he also attends college at Everglades University in Florida — traveling to talk with groups, adding he also does a lot behind the scenes.
“For me, it’s not what you do when people are looking, it’s actually what you do when people are not looking,” he said. “I really believe I’m supposed to live a life of serving other people. My life is not about me, it’s about someone else. We were all made to live on this planet with each other, so, let’s do something else to help someone else.”
At the beginning of the year, Vilonia High School adopted the program.
We Dine Together at VHS:
Oral communications teacher Susan Jobe said it all started this past summer when she worked with the Arkansas Declaration for Learning Program through the department of education, which focuses on student civic engagement.
Jobe said school started and one of the units she taught focused on self concept, how we view and treat others as well as how we view ourselves.
She said her students talked about walking out a project to address a civic issue that they were aware of in their community and what they could do to bring positive change to that, thus came the We Dine Together group.
With a core group of 7-10 students, the team was started and, since, Jobe said, the students have welcomed kids who are new to the school, introduced themselves and have given out goodie bags, written positive quotes with chalk on the sidewalks, started the We Dine Together luncheons twice a month — dozens attend — where they invite the new students, and those who sit alone, to the media center for lunch.
“It’s been just a good point of outreach for our new students coming into the district and also for those students, like [Estimon] talked talked about, that just really don’t have a place to fit in and belong,” she said.
As to why bring the speaker to Vilonia, Jobe said they wanted to bring Estimon to campus to spread his word and raise awareness toward what he — and the VHS students — is trying to achieve.
“It’s also been good for them to just kind of really cement what the mission is of the club and they’re just really committed and passionate about building community within the school,” she said.
Jobe said this is something she is passionate about and wants her students to truly learn to value others.
“They might not be your best friend and you might not hangout with them all the time but the fact that you can value them as a person and appreciate their worth and value and kind of give that back to them, I think that that’s important,” she said. “We’re here to equip them and educate them, obviously, we want to equip them academically we want them to be successful in every area, but they can’t be successful out in the world if ... they need to be successful as a human being first.”
Estimon said seeing the program he started years ago take hold across the nation has feels amazing.
“It just goes to show how one small act can make a big impact,” he said. “Nothing we ever do is really small [though] we think it is small in the moment.”