A heart 2 heart with Student 2 Student

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany -- The first day of school can be a day filled with anxiety, unease and jitters about starting over.

For Department of Defense Education Activity students, any initial fears may be multiplied when starting school in a foreign country away from their familiar friends.

For military children like Gavin Lerch, a native of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and son of Bernadette and U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Martin Lerch, 52nd Force Support Squadron first sergeant, his first day as a 7th grader at Bitburg Middle-High School in Germany couldn't seem more daunting.

However, Gavin and his fellow newcomers arrived for orientation at Bitburg MHS Aug. 22, to a welcome surprise - students who welcomed him by name with an aim to be his friend.

Like many DoDEA installations, the Student 2 Student program at Bitburg MHS helps new students transition to their new school as military families permanently change stations.

The Military Child Education Coalition, a nonprofit organization aimed at ensuring quality educational opportunities for all military children, created S2S to help families as they transition to and from schools, according to their website.

"As frequently as our children move, that puts lots of requirements on them," said Jennifer Heinen, school counselor for students of grades 10 through 12, and a native of Jacksonville, Florida.

Heinen implemented Bitburg's S2S program in 2007 and also chooses motivated students to serve as school ambassadors.

"Nobody wants to be the kid that has nobody to eat lunch with," she said.

Heinen selected two of those former new students to serve as S2S mentors - twin sisters Therese and Francesca Gatterburg, natives of Heidelberg, Germany. The sisters represented sophomore students who welcomed 90 new Barons to the school before the first day, Aug. 25.

S2S mentors may follow their own reasons behind joining the program. For the twin sisters, joining served as a personal challenge to make others enjoy a different experience than theirs.

"We went to a new school, and there was nothing or anything like S2S," Francesca said. "It was just, 'Here's your school, we'll show you around,' and that's it. We felt really left out. To not have that happen to someone else is the best you can do to someone."

Her sister agreed with those sentiments.

"Moving to a new place is really, really hard," Therese said. "The first time I moved to a new place, there was nobody aside from my sister that I really knew, and I didn't like it. I found it amazing that I could help people not to feel like that or feel out of place and feel like they don't have a place to sit or someone to talk to."

Donning purple "LOST" shirts ("Lonely? Outsider? Scared? Terrified?"), the Gatterburgs and fellow S2S members introduced themselves to newcomers after they met their school's faculty and staff. Beyond those introductions, S2S mentors had more in store: "Ships and Sailors," a "Simons Says"-style social game to help break any metaphorical ice that hadn't yet melted.

Students both new like Gavin, and familiar like the twins, mixed into groups for a tour of the school campus including the classrooms, lockers and gymnasium.

"They helped me because I know my way around school now," Gavin said. "They're very nice, they helped me a lot. They showed me around and got to know me. I like it, and the teachers are pretty nice, too."

The orientation ended with a celebratory hamburger and hot dog cookout by the school football field. Gavin said he left with a different perspective than when he first arrived.

"There was a whole bunch of high schoolers walking around," Gavin said. "I thought that they were going to be a little bit meaner - but they're not."

"S2S is a really great program where we say, 'we already gave you a place to sit at lunch, we already gave you some friends,'" Therese said. "It's a really good program to really help build friendships and integrate people into this school."

And for S2S members, orientation didn't represent the end of their involvement as much as it did the start of a new school year with more friends than before. As the school year continues, the S2S team will help acclimate new students who arrive throughout the school year due to PCS.

For further information about the program, call the school at 011-49-6561-94810.