The Circle of Friends Club at Laguna Beach High School had a few more friends than usual in attendance Monday.
The lunchtime club, which offers students a way to interact, play games and spend time together — rather than eat alone or in insular groups — welcomed visitors from Tennoji High in Osaka, Japan.
The guests were part of a group of 25 high schoolers at the campus shadowing students as part of a foreign exchange program.
Senior Jackie McMahon, 18, and her sister Kate, 20, started the club when they were Thurston Middle School students about eight years ago as a place for special-needs kids to meet and get to know other students.
"We were bothered by a lack of acceptance," said Jackie, a member of the current Circle of Friends Club. "Special-needs kids would sit at their own table, separate from everyone else. Everyone deserves a friend. No one deserves to be left out."
On Monday, students sat in a circle and munched on sandwiches while senior Perry Nielson, 17, co-president of the club along with senior Jamie Hendrickson, 17, asked the group, "How is your day going?"
Students introduced themselves by identifying something they like or a quality about themselves. One said she had had two knee surgeries, another talked about how he enjoys playing basketball.
Basketball is one of the regular activities the students participate in, along with playing board games from among several occupying a drawer inside the classroom.
The group, originally called the Buddy Club at Thurston, has blossomed and now welcomes all students, including those new to Laguna who are looking to make friends.
The group schedules trips to an Angels' game and Sea World each year.
Perry began attending the club as a freshman and became co-president a year later. She values the connections she has made.
"Getting to know people at all different grade levels, it makes it feel more like I'm part of the school," Perry said. "It's going to be hard to graduate; this is my second home, and I've developed leadership skills."
Monday's meeting included students who sat in a circle tossing tennis balls back and forth for a brief time, and then posed on the steps of the school's outdoor quad for a yearbook picture.
One bold student danced to the rhythm of background music on the lawn.
Students get only 30 minutes together before the next bell rings, so time is precious.
Veronica Hinmon, 18, found a few extra minutes to spend alongside her new Japanese friend as the two finished their lunches.
Hinmon started coming to the club two years ago and smiled when talking about its impact.
"It's cool playing games ... making new friends and going to Sea World," Hinmon said.
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