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‘How far a little kindness can go’

SHHS students hear message of Columbine shooting victim

By: Cortney Casey | Warren Weekly | Published March 11, 2011

 Sterling Heights High School students sign a poster that commits them to Rachel’s Challenge March 9. Named for Rachel Scott, the first victim of the Columbine High School shootings, the program encourages kids to show kindness and compassion to start a chain reaction.

Sterling Heights High School students sign a poster that commits them to Rachel’s Challenge March 9. Named for Rachel Scott, the first victim of the Columbine High School shootings, the program encourages kids to show kindness and compassion to start a chain reaction.

Photo by Deb Jacques

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STERLING HEIGHTS — The room is packed with hundreds of teenagers, yet it’s so silent, it might as well be empty.

Absent are the persistent whispers, rampant fidgeting and occasional scoffs typical of high school assemblies. The students at Sterling Heights High School are rapt, fixated on the benevolent words of a girl they never knew —and never will.

Her name was Rachel Scott, and she was 17 when she was gunned down on April 20, 1999, the first of 13 victims in the infamous Columbine High School rampage.

Now, her family seeks to perpetuate her kindness and compassion through Rachel’s Challenge, a program that passes along the “formula” for changing the world set forth in Scott’s journals.

That formula entailed eliminating prejudice by looking for the best in others, daring to dream, choosing positive influences, using kind words and starting a chain reaction by communicating to people how much you care.

During his March 9 presentation at SHHS, Dave Gamache, the organization’s business development director, combined motivational speaking with video clips of documentaries, interviews with Scott’s friends and relatives, and excerpts from her journals and essays.

Footage from the day of the tragedy, the worst school shooting in American history, showed SWAT teams swarming, families embracing, parents scanning lists of survivors, teachers frantically phoning 911.

Two students, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, unleashed a torrent of bullets inside the Littleton, Colo., school, killing one teacher and a dozen classmates, before turning the guns on themselves.

Scott was eating lunch outside Columbine’s west entrance, taking advantage of the first warm spring day, when Klebold and Harris opened fire. She took four bullets to the chest.

Her younger brother, Craig, survived. He watched, powerless, as 10 classmates were murdered before his eyes, including the two friends who hid alongside him beneath a table in Columbine’s library. The killers reportedly had shotguns trained at Craig Scott’s head before fire sprinklers activated, distracting them.

Craig Scott went on to be active in Rachel’s Challenge and now is in Hollywood, focusing exclusively on making humorous and inspiring movies. He refuses to be involved with films that glorify violence, said Gamache.

Gamache said Scott kept six journals; the last, found in her backpack the day of the shootings, has a bullet hole in the cover. The diaries included her musings about creating compassionate chain reactions, as well as her intentions to pay particular attention to classmates who were disabled, new to the school or picked on by others.

Her parents later received correspondence from hundreds of beneficiaries of this secret “plan,” including a boy with disabilities who’d been contemplating suicide until Scott began greeting him warmly in the halls each day.

Six weeks before she died, Scott penned an essay called “My Ethics, My Code of Life,” which hypothesized that if one person went out of his or her way to be kind, it could trigger that coveted chain reaction.

“People will never know how far a little kindness can go,” she wrote.

Gamache said Scott had a premonition she would die young and often wrote about longing to leave a lasting impact on the world. He showed students a photo of what her parents discovered in her bedroom three years after her death: her hands, traced on the back of a heavy dresser, and the words, “These hands belong to Rachel Joy Scott and I will someday touch millions of people’s hearts.”

Eliciting laughter with tales of his own 8-year-old son leaping from one lofty vision to another — A firefighter! An astronaut! A garbageman! — Gamache urged students to never lose that childlike quality that allows them to dream.

Too often, he said, he visits schools and asks kids what their greatest goals are, only to be told, “Dude, I’m just looking forward to Friday.” And among many of his 30-something friends, that hasn’t changed; they’re so swept up in the demands of everyday life that they’re just trying to make it through the week, he said.

According to Gamache, 301 students have e-mailed program coordinators over the past two school years, confessing that they’d planned to commit suicide, but reconsidered after hearing Scott’s words.

At the presentation’s conclusion, Gamache asked everyone who planned to carry Scott’s legacy forward to raise their hands. The audience was a sea of outstretched fingers and palms.

“Welcome to Rachel’s Challenge,” he said, as the room erupted in thunderous applause.

SHHS social worker Mary Jo Benczkowski said the school in the past has conducted Challenge Day, which encourages students to create positive change by embodying it. But that program, which sequesters participants for the entire day, can only involve a limited number of students, and staffers liked the fact that Rachel’s Challenge could encompass the entire school, as well as the surrounding community, she said.

The evening of March 9, SHHS hosted an additional session for parents and the general public, similar to the presentation students saw, but more family-focused. Principal Robert Shaner estimated 200-250 people attended the nighttime event.

Benczkowski said 170 students also were tapped to spearhead Friends of Rachel, a club responsible for implementing confidence-building projects throughout the schools. Those kids received additional training later that afternoon.

The message Benczkowski hoped the students would take home was simple: “That a single kind word and a little bit of compassion goes a long way toward accepting everyone. … Everybody can make a difference.”

Sophomore Lubica Cechvala-Tkac and juniors Kyle Bendel and Marie Deda said they’d already seen changes in behavior from seniors, who attended the presentation before theirs, in the mere minutes between the sessions.

Deda called the event “a life-changing experience,” and the trio said the necessity of expressing appreciation to loved ones had hit home.

“I just want to text my mom right now and tell her,” said Cechvala-Tkac.
 

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