In the end only kindness matters.
The lyrics from a 1998 Jewel song, Hands, have inspired millions of people participating in Rachel's Challenge, an event named for a 17-year-old victim of the 1999 Columbine school shootings.
Rachel Joy Scott was the first person killed in Colorado's Columbine High School shooting tragedy. In the aftermath, Rachel's father Darrell began to speak and use drawings from Rachel's diaries to illustrate the need for a kinder, more compassionate nation, and as he spread the message, it grew into a 'mission for change' to create safer learning environments and make a world-wide impact. According to Rachel's Challenge website, more than 19 million people have been touched by Rachel's message and each year Darrell, now with a team of more than 35 presenters in their busy September-November months, reach another two million more people.
After seeing a presentation earlier this year at a youth officer’s conference, officers from the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Oxford County Detachment and Woodstock Police Service approached the local school boards about bringing Rachel’s Challenge to the county, part of local efforts to tackle the issue of violence and bullying. Supported financially by generous donations from local area service clubs and sponsors, they were able to make it happen.
Early Monday morning Grade 9-12 students at Glendale High School in Tillsonburg, coordinated by Constable Sue Sandham (high school resource officer), listened to Todd Lauderdale, from southern California, give an hour-plus presentation on behalf of Rachel's Challenge.
“I met Rachel's family through a friend of mine and I heard her story from her family,” said Lauderdale. “It impacted me personally and I just felt compelled. I wanted to take her story and share it with other people. This is my fifth school year travelling and sharing her story.
“It really resonates with students, they can relate with the things we talk about. They see students mistreating each other. Sometimes they're a part of it as an initiator... sometimes they're dealing with the brunt of it. They face peer pressure on a continual basis. It's a story that happened 14-plus years ago and it still resonates with students today. They connect with it on a personal level and what we've found, when you reach students at a heart level, they open up and want to hear what you have to say.”
“I hope everybody liked it, or got the message,” said Glendale student Steven Dodd, a member of the school's seven-member social justice club. “I think it was really well presented.”
Bullying, he said, happens in high schools, including Glendale.
“Some bullying,” he nodded. “Little things that people do, they don't even notice it sometimes. They might ignore somebody, they might say something wrong...”
After watching Monday's presentation, Dodd said they plan to organize a 'chain reaction' event which records acts of kindness in the school in a tangible way, creating a paper 'chain link' for each act of kindness which added together could spread from one end of the school to the other.
“We're planning to start it soon,” he said.
“I think we're starting Nov. 22nd,” said Glendale's Megan Spencer, also a member of the social justice club.
Spencer said they want to connect Rachel's Challenge to their anti-bullying awareness week.
“We usually do the pink hands in November – the Sea of Pink – taking the pledge against bullying, but we're going to incorporate the 'chains' this time.”
Spencer felt the message was well-received during Monday's presentation.
“We were expecting it to be positive, and it was, even though it was kind of an upsetting topic. The message is strong.”
“As we watch this,” said Lauderdale, introducing a cafeteria scene midway through his presentation, “I want you to consider the impact that your life may have on those around you – if you choose to do similar acts of kindness.”
The students watched a girl new to a high school trying to find her way, rejected by some, accepted by one.
“We all know what it's like to receive a compliment from somebody. We also all know what it's like to be criticized or insulted by someone,” said Lauderdale. “Those words often stick with us for a long time... because those words can be powerful. Your words can be powerful. That's why your challenge is all about the way that you use your words toward other people.
“We underestimate the power that has, because you have the ability with your words to build somebody up... or tear them down. You have the ability to make them feel good about themselves or feel poor about themselves. You can bring more hurt into somebody's life or healing into somebody's life, just by the words you choose to speak to them.”
Rachel's Challenge, he said, is more than just telling Rachel's life story and how she impacted the world around her through acts of kindness. It's meant to inspire a 'chain reaction' of kindness and compassion in schools, to get students actively involved in the process through the 'Friends of Rachel' Club.
“We don't want to just come to your school and do a one-hour presentation, even if it is a powerful story. We know that impact will fade in the upcoming weeks unless we put something into place in your school that will bring a lasting change, and that's what we want to see. Friends of Rachel Club is what that's all about. It's a way for a group of students here working together to take these challenges and make them real here in your school.”
For more information on Rachel’s Challenge, visit www.rachelschallenge.org, or on Facebook.
“I have this theory that if one person will go out of their way to show compassion, then it will start a chain reaction of the same.”
– Rachel Joy Scott (1981-1999)