Junior high students committed to kindness

February 18, 2009

By Brenda Rader Mross

The Wellington


Wellington (Colorado) Junior High School is abuzz about chain reactions, but most of the conversations are occurring outside of science class.

While anything made of matter is a chemical, it’s that which is unseen, without substance, yet connects us all that is the hot topic.

These teenagers are talking about love.

Not the typical, hormonally driven “chemistry” of crushes, but serious weekly discussions of practical acts of loving kindness — random, yet so related that each initiates the next.

Students are gathering Tuesdays after school to walk their talk about continuing a chain reaction of kindness and compassion begun after the most tragic event in Colorado school history, the shootings at Columbine High School.

Most weren’t old enough to attend school on April 20, 1999, when Rachel Joy Scott was the first of 13 people killed by two of her fellow students. Where perhaps memory did not serve, many learned more about that fateful day when Rachel’s Challenge, a school assembly and training program to discourage teen violence, came to Wellington on Jan. 26.

Rachel’s Challenge was created by the 17-year-old’s parents after they discovered Rachel had recorded in her diaries premonitions of her own early death. Also, hidden behind a dresser for three years after she died, Rachel had sketched an outline of her hands upon which she wrote: “These hands will touch millions.”

Following two presentations — one given during the day for students, the other at night attended by more than 200 parents and townspeople — 40 students joined together to form a local outlet of the national club FOR (Friends of Rachel). Its mission: to reach as many people as possible with the message of kindness and compassion. Its goal: to help create a permanent cultural change in schools worldwide.

During the evening community event, Dave Gamache, who called Rachel his best friend’s sister, explained that accepting Rachel’s Challenge is a five-pronged commitment to the following: look for the best in others, dare to dream, choose positive influences, use kind words and start a chain reaction.

It was in an essay Rachel wrote about her ethics that the chain reaction was born: “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.”

Lindsay Hacker, a new drama, mass media and English teacher responsible for bringing the program to WJHS, said FOR already has three action plans underway: the New Student Program, Targets of Kindness and Mix It Up Day.

“Sometimes sad events have to occur to bring about change,” Hacker said. “Hopefully, we will teach these kids to go out and be the Rachels, to truly be the example.”

Gamache said Rachel had pledged to go out of her way every day to reach out to three groups of students: the disabled or handicapped, those new at school, and those frequently picked on or put down. Her assailants, Gamache claimed, had been taunted since junior high about being gay.

“Even something as simple as making eye contact and smiling at each other can make a big difference,” Hacker said.

Ninth-grader Jenna Callison called FOR “cool.”

“It’s a wake-up call,” the 14-year-old said. “I forgave people I had judged wrong.”

Fellow ninth-grader Kelly Cringan, 15, agreed that FOR was “an eye-opener.”

“Now I talk to people I normally wouldn’t talk to. Before, I avoided them,” Kelly admitted. “I found out they are cool people. Change yourself and that’s how you change other people.”

Kelly believes FOR will make a difference, as does eighth-grader Emily Melick.

“Anything you do can make a difference,” Emily, 14, said. “I sat with different people at lunch today.”

That’s just what “Mix It Up Day” is all about. Once a month the student body will be asked to sit with someone they normally don’t sit with at lunch.

Targets of Kindness involves picking out a group of people or a person who might have normally gone unnoticed and thanking them for what they do. FOR has also posted signs around school with blank slips of construction paper tucked into pockets. Students and staff are supposed to write down their acts of kindness and ones they’ve witnessed and add them as links to a chain Hacker hopes will grow “really long” by the end of the school year.

FOR’s New Student Program was initiated by the students, Hacker said, and came about the day after the group’s first meeting.

“The kids came to me all excited about how they were going out of their way to help two new kids at school,” Hacker said. “They were already out there creating it themselves.”

Another project in the works is asking the community to donate old eyeglasses and sunglasses for redistribution to people in third-world countries. Hacker said FOR will have drop boxes around town and at school, and folks should put their glasses in separate resealable plastic bags.

Financial donations are also important as Hacker reports there is a follow-up assembly, Rachel’s Legacy, that costs an additional $3,800 on top of this year’s $3,500. However, there is no fee to use the curriculum every year. Also, community volunteers are needed Tuesdays between 3 and 5 p.m. to help conduct meetings.

In the long term, Hacker hopes FOR is able to spur a new climate at school, one that is welcoming and safe.

“Kids will choose to be kind-hearted when they open their eyes to notice exclusionary behaviors,” the Chicago native said. “It just takes time for them to step out of their comfort zones and be the leaders.”

The group’s designated leaders are seventh-graders Alexis Graham-Harmon and Elija Ostin, eighth-graders Zach Wright and Danielle Stroud, and ninth-graders Autumn Murphy and Jenna Callison.

Breanna Hubbard, also a ninth-grader, is the ambassador. Breanna will be responsible for communications between WJHS and its to-be-announced sister school.

All were awarded a Rachel’s Challenge wristband.

According to Hacker, another long-term goal is to pull in fifth- and sixth-graders as early as next year. Hacker anticipates the program will run for years, maybe forever.

It is as Rachel wrote: “People will never know how far a little kindness can go.”