‘Rachel’s Challenge’ a call for compassion

Nina Tejada, from Rachel
Nina Tejada, from Rachel's Challenge, speaks at North Whidbey Middle School Thursday night in front of an image of Rachel Joy Scott and her brother.
— image credit: Ron Newberry

The long links of paper chains were a sign that this would be no ordinary school assembly.

The silence and tears that followed only confirmed it.

“Some of the biggest, strongest guys on campus were emotionally changed today,” said Jeffrey Laiblin, social studies teacher and activities advisor at North Whidbey Middle School. “I watched them break down in tears.”

A grant from Oak Harbor Education Foundation enabled middle school students in the Oak Harbor School District to experience a unique program Thursday that focused on compassion for others.

Presentations for “Rachel’s Challenge” were made at assemblies at Oak Harbor and North Whidbey middle schools during the day and followed by a community program in the evening at North Whidbey.

The program was intended to make students stop and think about how acts of kindness can make a dramatic difference in teenagers’ lives, particularly those who are targets of unfair treatment such as bullying, new students who feel isolated or those who have had trouble fitting in.

Inspired by the writings and life of 17-year-old Rachel Joy Scott, the first student killed in the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, the program is designed to empower students to act and not just reflect on the lessons they learned.

“Friends of Rachel” clubs were formed in Oak Harbor, linking students from the middle and senior high schools to a common cause.

Banners were signed by students who accepted the challenge to do their part to create a culture of kindness and compassion, and in doing so, start a chain reaction.

“We need more of this,” said Joel Servatius, Oak Harbor City Councilman who attended the evening presentation with his family.

By accepting Rachel’s Challenge, students were agreeing to focus on five themes:

* Look for the best in others.

* Dream big.

* Choose positive influences.

* Speak with kindness.

* Start your own chain reaction.

The messages came from writings in Scott’s journal found in her bullet-riddled backpack at school, and also from the examples she set in reaching out to classmates targeted by harassment such as those with special needs, school newcomers or those who just had trouble socially.

The program was started by Scott’s father and stepmother, Darrell and Sandy Scott, after noticing the impact their daughter’s writings and drawings left on her friends and classmates.

Nina Tejada delivered the presentation through a combination of her own words and video footage of newcasts, interviews and 911 dispatch recordings of the Columbine tragedy.

Mostly, the presentation focused on an young girl who wanted to change the world with small acts of kindess to one person at a time, hoping these acts would start a worldwide chain reaction.

“It’s an incredibly strong message,” Tejada said. “It touches all dynamics.”

Students who wanted to join a “Friends of Rachel” club trained together at Oak Harbor Middle School Thursday, attended the morning assembly there then showed up at North Whidbey Middle School in the afternoon wearing red “Rachel’s Challenge” T-shirts and carrying a paper chain they built that circled the entire gym.

It symbolized the chain reaction Scott was so emphatic about.

Three middle school teachers -- Mary Ann Duhrkopf and Linda McLean of North Whidbey and Erin Bull of Oak Harbor -- filed for the applied learning grant that made the program possible.

At the North Whidbey Middle School assembly, Laiblin was amazed by the dead silence, then watched the tears start to flow, particularly toward the end.

He wondered if some students might’ve been self-reflecting on their own behaviors.

“It was the most captive middle school audience I’ve ever seen,” Laiblin said.

The importance wasn’t lost on Bill Weinsheimer, principal at North Whidbey Middle School.

“Especially in middle schools where students are learning how to relate to others, it is essential they get coaching on the right way to do that, that you don’t have to be mean and sarcastic in order to make connections,” Weinsheimer said. “And they are learning that their words really have an impact.”

Fifty students at North Whidbey Middle School signed up for the Friends of Rachel club. The plan is for the clubs to work together and have continuity from students entering middle school through 12th grade, with tentative plans for shared activities during lunch time, said Laura Schonberg, assistant principal at North Whidbey Middle School.

“The intent is to have all of us focusing on building and perpetuating a positive, compassionate, caring school environment and we’ll definitely be talking, brainstorming and working on the clubs together,” Schonberg said.


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