Lunchtime friends reunite once more before graduation

By BRITTANY FHOLER 

Cove Leader-Press 

 

A lunchtime friendship that developed between some Copperas Cove HIgh School seniors after a special needs student was bullied, was cut short prior to spring break. 

Earlier in the school year, seniors Abby McWhorter, Monique Arevalo-Zanzow and Victoria Thompson had befriended another fellow senior, Joel Ortega. 

Joel, who has autism, is part of the school’s special education program and is in a self-contained classroom, except during lunchtime. 

The three girls would eat lunch together and Joel joined their table, according to McWhorter, when some freshman girls were picking on Ortega and giving him food that had fallen on the floor. 

The three seniors stepped in and defended Joel, who then began to join their table at lunch every day. The girls didn’t even know their friend’s last name, but accepted him into their lunchtime group. 

When the campus remained closed after spring break, the girls still worried about Joel and wondered  how he was. 

Then, Abby saw a photo of Joel on the Adopt a Senior Central Texas Facebook group and told her mother, Gretchen, “That’s him! That’s our friend from lunch!” 

Gretchen decided to “adopt” Joel through the Facebook group and reached out to his mother, Natalia. 

“One of the things that as a mom I always worried for my son was how people reacted to him because of his disability and his differences, how he’s different to other kids,” Natalia said. 

Gretchen explained to Natalia how her daughter and her friends knew Joel, and when Natalia asked her son about who he ate lunch with, he mentioned the girls by name. The girls were thrilled to know that Joel remembered them and that they had made an impression. 

It made an impression on Natalia, too.

“It kind of opened up a world that I didn’t know my son lived in, and I was just glad to know that even though he’s not that social person, that at least he understands who likes him and who doesn’t, and he’s able to make friends with those people, even if it’s just by sitting at lunch with them,” Natalia said.

 Natalia ended up adopting Abby through the Adopt a Senior group as well, and the two families agreed to meet and exchange each other’s gifts. 

Abby invited Monique and Victoria to accompany her when she delivered Ortega’s gift basket.  

Natalia said she kept the meeting a surprise from her son, and when the group of lunch friends met again, Joel was so excited.  

After being stuck at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this gettogether offered a little bright spot for him. 

“It’s been rough on him because he likes school,” Natalia said. “It’s his opportunity to be with other children and friends. He misses that and having his routine. This has broken his routine. It has broken his interaction with people his age.”

She added that Joel does not really have friends who he can visit or who would visit him. 

“He’s not a typical child, so this has been really hard on him, so for him to be able to see them and be able to have a few minutes to interact with his peers and for them to come and visit him, I mean, I cannot imagine how excited he was,” Natalia said. “I just saw the brightness in him.”

The meeting was exciting for the girls as well. Abby she hoped that they would all get to meet up again sometime. Monique said she hoped to stay in touch with Joel through his mother. 

“I think it’s cool because people are usually really scared to introduce themselves to people, and I think when you do that you make a lasting impression on them, and they make that lasting impression on you,” Abby said. “I don’t think if we ever opened up to Joel that he would have probably sat somewhere else or wouldn’t have cared for us, but we opened up. It’s just good that we both got to make impressions on each other and learn about different backgrounds of people.”

Monique agreed. She added that it is important for people to stand up for those that cannot defend themselves. 

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