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Clinton Township, Macomb Township

September 25, 2013

Rachel’s Challenge brings positive message to schools

By Jeremy Selweski
C & G Staff Writer

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On Sept. 19, about 1,400 students at Seneca Middle School in Macomb Township viewed a presentation from Rachel’s Challenge, a nonprofit organization created by the family of one of the victims of the Columbine High School massacre. Throughout the week, Rachel’s Challenge visited all four Chippewa Valley middle schools: Seneca, Algonquin, Wyandot and Iroquois.

CLINTON TOWNSHIP/MACOMB TOWNSHIP — It was a few weeks after his daughter was brutally murdered that Darrell Scott received a mysterious phone call from a man named Frank.

Frank, who lived in Ohio and had never met Scott or his family, told him that he had been having a recurring dream that he could not get out of his head. The dream was about Scott’s daughter, Rachel, who was one of 13 people killed in the shooting at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. Rachel was just 17 years old and less than two months away from graduation.

In his dream, Frank saw a vivid image of Rachel’s eyes with tears cascading down. Her tears fell all the way to the ground, where some type of plant or flower was beginning to grow. Frank asked Scott if the dream meant anything to him, but Scott told him that he was sorry, but it did not.

A short time after that phone call, local police told Scott that he could come pick up Rachel’s backpack, which they had been holding as evidence ever since the shooting. He rushed down to the police station to retrieve his late daughter’s belongings, eager to inspect the items that had been by her side during the final moments of her life. He found one of the many journals that Rachel was always writing in and was stunned by what he saw inside.

There, on the last page of the last journal that Rachel Joy Scott ever wrote, was a drawing: In it, there were a pair of eyes with tears pouring down from them like rain. And at the bottom, there was a beautiful rose blooming up from the ground. It was as if the unthinkable tragedy of Rachel’s death was now giving rise to new life.

This story was relayed to 1,400 students at Seneca Middle School on Sept. 19 during a pair of presentations hosted by Rachel’s Challenge, the nonprofit organization that the Scott family created in Rachel’s honor, inspired by the journal writings that they discovered after her death. Throughout the week, Rachel’s Challenge visited all four Chippewa Valley middle schools — Seneca, Algonquin, Wyandot and Iroquois — to teach students about the importance of treating one another with the respect they deserve.

According to presenter Bill Sanders, Rachel’s message in these journals was a simple one about the power of human connection: “People will never know how far a little kindness can go;” “Compassion is the greatest form of love that humans have to offer;” and “I have this theory that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion, then it will start a chain reaction of the same.”

The latter phrase became the mission statement for Rachel’s Challenge, which began in Littleton, Colo., over a decade ago and to date has reached nearly 20 million people at schools across the U.S. and abroad. Its goal is to create safer, more positive learning environments worldwide and continue Rachel’s real-life legacy of reaching out to students who were different, who were picked on by others or who felt depressed, lonely or isolated.

For Sanders, Rachel’s message is a universal one.

“I never knew Rachel,” he told the Seneca crowd, none of whom were even born when the Columbine shooting occurred, “but I feel like she’s one of my very best friends.”

Sanders asked students to accept the five steps of Rachel’s Challenge: look for the best in others; dream big; choose positive influences; speak with kindness, not cruelty; and start your own chain reaction.

Later that day, a group of 100 students took part in training to help them design projects and activities that will have a positive impact on the school community. In this way, Seneca will keep the message of Rachel’s Challenge alive for the long term.

As Seneca principal Todd Distelrath said after the presentation, “Middle school can be a very challenging time for kids. I think that in middle school, kids are still trying to figure things out, and the social aspect of their lives suddenly becomes a lot bigger, sometimes overwhelming. Because of that, they don’t always treat each other very nicely.”

According to Rachel’s Challenge, each day about 160,000 students do not go to school because they are bullied, teased and harassed. The organization provides a series of self-empowering programs and strategies that equip students and adults with the tools to combat school bullying and violence, as well as to transform feelings of isolation and despair into a new culture of kindness and compassion.

Sanders noted that Rachel always went out of her way to befriend three groups of students: those with special needs, those who were new to the school and those who were bullied. Still, Sanders and other Rachel’s Challenge presenters purposely do not spend a lot of time talking about bullying.

“Getting rid of bullying doesn’t do anything for that student who feels isolated and alone,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that you will suddenly walk across the hallway and talk to someone who’s different than you and your friends.”

Sanders encouraged all students to think before they speak to one another. He recalled a twist on a well-known adage about the power of insults that he once heard from a kindergartener: “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can break my heart.”

His final challenge to Seneca students was to go home and tell all the people they love how much they care about them.

“If you do, I’ll make you this promise,” he said. “You will never regret it, and they will never forget it.”

In closing, he told the audience to never give up on their ambitions, no matter how big they may be. He pointed out that Rachel had always wanted to touch millions of lives, and through the efforts of Rachel’s Challenge, now she has.

“Don’t waste your potential on puny dreams; don’t be labeled as average,” Sanders insisted. “Rachel said, ‘I’m going to have an impact on the world.’ You will, too, but what will that impact be?”

Distelrath noted that Seneca is working hard to make sure that its students leave a positive mark and create a future that they can be proud of. He hopes that the lessons of Rachel’s Challenge can serve as inspiration for them.

“The challenge of a program like this is sustaining the message,” he said, “but we will certainly do our best to make that happen. What I saw here today was very powerful, and my hope is that our students are feeling the same way. It’s just an amazing story; it’s like Rachel was put here on earth completely for the purpose of helping other people.”

Sanders, a native of Vicksburg, Mich., has been with Rachel’s Challenge since the beginning. He helped create the organization’s original school program and estimated that he has given 2,000 to 3,000 presentations like the one at Seneca. He explained that the program tends to have the biggest emotional impact on students who have recently lost a loved one, who have been bullied or who have bullied someone else.

“It really hits close to home for a lot of them,” Sanders said. “I think kids just want to be challenged to expect more out of themselves. What always gets me is the way I see kids realizing that they can be just like Rachel. That look on their face is just priceless. It’s like they’ve never even considered it before — until now.”

For more information on Rachel’s Challenge, visit www. rachelschallenge.org or call (303) 470-3000.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Jeremy Selweski at jSelweski@candgnews.com or at (586)218-5004.