My eighth-grade daughter Mackenzie and her friends are so excited to be a part of the Be the Change team at Gwinn Middle School. Five of them presented at a school board meeting this winter to request funding to bring the Challenge Day program to their school, to create a more accepting environment for students. They were led and encouraged by their principal Kim VanDrese, who hopes to bring the program to our district every other year!
The award-winning program, which is the same one featured in MTV’s If You Really Knew Me reality TV show, was brought to Gwinn for three days in March — one day for the eighth-grade class, one day for the seventh-grade class, and the third day for 100 freshmen, sophomores and juniors.
The middle school Challenge Days were a huge success. A poll of the students afterward showed that 90 percent felt hopeful that a school where people treat each other with respect and acceptance is possible. The high school Challenge Day, however, was cut short an hour into the program due to problems with the sound system. Students felt disappointed; however, the good news is that the Challenge Day leaders promised to return at no extra cost to the district. They rescheduled for May 3rd and 4th, and this time 300 high school students can participate.
Even though the high school progam didn’t go as planned, just one hour of Challenge Day impacted the students and adult volunteers involved. I know I felt changed when I left the gym that day. I felt closer to my former and current students, and met some really neat freshmen I hope to have in class next year. We let our guards down, and we bonded. For starters, the teachers danced in front of students and later with them. Then we partnered up with students to talk about our heroes and our most embarrassing moments.
My student Miranda Whitmarsh deserves kudos for dancing in front of the crowd by herself, after being the last one to find her seat. She later described running into the gym as a “rush of happiness.” She said the activities were really fun. “I talked to people I don’t usually talk to,” she said. “Challenge Day coming back is amazing.”
Another student, junior Sarah Sego, is counting down the days for Challenge Day to return. She wrote a guest blog post, included below:
A Reflection on Challenge Day, by guest blogger Sarah Sego
When I first heard about Challenge Day coming to our school, I really didn’t know what to expect. I was very excited because I had watched episodes of If You Really Knew Me on MTV, and cried every time I watched them. So, based on that, I knew it was going to be a fun time. I am a very emotional person. In even more ways, though, the show had a great effect on me. I learned that sometimes we make up stories in our minds about people that really are not true. I can remember thinking how cool it would be to have that type of program come to our school. To think of our school changing was like a dream. To think that one program could change a whole school was amazing.
When I found out for sure that I was going to be involved in Challenge Day, I was so excited but I didn’t know what to expect. It was such an overwhelming feeling. When I got home that day, I sat at the computer and watched every single episode of If You Really Knew Me. I guess I found a feeling of comfort knowing that our school might never be the same. I felt kind of nervous with the thought of some people not taking it seriously. They might just take it as a day to get out of class. I also worried that some students might not be okay with getting to know new people or sharing their stories.
Then, finally, the day had come. I can remember the night before – I was so scared. I had so many mixed emotions and thoughts. I woke up that morning in the world’s greatest mood. Nothing could bring me down! With my not being a morning person, it was kind of surprising to me that I woke up at 6 a.m. I was so excited that I couldn’t even talk. On my way to school, it must have gotten worse because I accidentally slid right into the snow bank. Good thing I have four-wheel drive! Walking through the doors that day was like going to the first day of high school, but with a bright and happy feel to it – almost as if you could feel everyone’s excitement in the air.
Mrs. VanDrese, the middle school principal, came out to explain to us what was going to happen. She stated that there was a tunnel of teachers and parents, full of enthusiasm. She then told us that we were going to run through them with excitement. Now, being myself, my first thought was Sarah doesn’t run. As soon as we got in there, I realized I was mistaken. It was a weird feeling. All my emotions and fears went away. It was just pure awesomeness! Positive energy surrounded us.
As the morning progressed, we met Kekoa and Gina, two of the Challenge Day leaders. They were so inspirational. We played some games and danced a little. We got to know each other and get out of our comfort zones. When we played the games, in a way it already brought all of us a little closer – almost as if we were all starting to accept each other.
During this time, Gina shared a little of her story with us. As I listened to some of the things she talked about, I felt the tears coming on. Before I knew it, I was crying. The trust she gave to us was incredible. To have the courage to share her story with 100 students was completely wonderful. I decided that the moment was all about respect and acceptance, although I also felt horrible that someone had to go through what she did. Looking at it now, I know that her situation has made her a stronger person and taught her many good lessons in life.
About an hour into the program, the leaders announced that they were going to take a short break because the sound system was cutting out at times. They were going to see if they could fix it. So we went on the other side of the gym to talk to friends. At first, I had the feeling that it was going to go back to normal and we were all going to be in our cliques and back into our comfort zones. For the first 15 minutes, that’s exactly what happened, but then something unusual took place. A group of friends decided to start a game of Duck-Duck-Goose. Pretty soon, 40 or so people joined the fun. Others started a game of Red Rover. We had over five different games going. We played with people we didn’t even know. I think it shows what an impact Challenge Day had on us in such a little time. We used our time wisely and entertained ourselves the best way we knew how.
After about 45 minutes, we were called back to the other side. I didn’t exactly know what was going on, but I could sense that something wasn’t right. They told us to pull our chairs in really close. As we did, I began to feel a little sadness. Gina told us that there was something wrong with the sound system, and it couldn’t be fixed at that time. They were not going to continue the program because they didn’t feel it was fair for the students if the program went on without having its full effect on us. As I tried to process this, all I could do was think about a saying I live my life by: “All things happen for a reason.” Tears began to stream down my face; I tried to hold them back, but without luck.
Kekoa explained the purpose of Challenge Day and the effect it has on some people. He said he realized we might be upset but to please understand that it was not intended, and that he would try to come back. Kekoa then asked if anyone had questions. I raised my hand. I didn’t know what to say, but I hoped I would say something. I told them that I was so thankful for them coming to our school, and even though it may be their job that to me it was a life-changing experience. Even though they were only with us for an hour, I said, they already had affected me, and I was going to do my best to keep it that way. It meant a lot to me to know that people actually care about us. We are in school about six hours a day, and it seems that all we do is homework. I understand that this is what school is about, but I also believe it’s about socializing and becoming the type of person you want to be.
Afterward, the Challenge Day leaders agreed to stay for a while and visit with us. When I finally thought I had stopped crying, I looked to the stairs and saw some of my friends crying. I went over to see if they were okay, and ended up getting pulled into a cry fest. It was not a pretty sight. Even though we didn’t really understand the situation or like it, we still tried to stay strong. One teacher, Mrs. Hewson, came over and brought Kekoa with her. She explained that she wanted him to promise that he would come back; he did. She then went on to say that she knew we had been let down before, and she hoped that we wouldn’t have to go through that again. I immediately lost it. My soft crying took a turn for the worse; now I had a raging river on my hands. It was hard to believe Kekoa at first because I’ve had some of the most important people in my life promise me the same thing. Unlike Kekoa, they didn’t keep their promises.
After I pulled myself together, Mrs. Hewson invited me to her room to just sit and talk. We were joined by a few other students and Mrs. Laitinen. We talked about how we felt and what made this day great. I remember one time looking at Mrs. Laitinen and was surprised that she looked so sad. It clicked with me: this program not only affected me, but others too. Mrs. Laitinen is one of my role models. She is one of the most inspiring and uplifting people I have ever met. To see her so sad broke me down even more. I knew that it was time to stop waiting for someone else to change; I had to take the first step. I spent the rest of that day at my house watching the If You Really Knew Me episodes over and over until my eyes couldn’t take it anymore. I also replayed that morning in my head and even questioned why. I knew it wasn’t right. I needed to change, not only for me but also for the people around me. To make just one person’s day is my goal.
For the next three weeks, I began researching the program and looking at what it takes to become a Challenge Day leader, such as what skills you need. I tried to see if I could contact them, but I wasn’t sure how. I decided that I needed to start small, and focus on what’s going on around me, in my community.
When I walked through school the next day, I noticed something very different. Some kids in our school were still being bullied. I noticed one girl getting called a “freak” because she didn’t have the best clothes or the best hair. I walked up to her and asked if she needed help. She said “no” and walked away, looking scared. It really amazes me to think that people have been bullied and have never gotten help so that now they are scared to accept help. It sickens me to think that people could bully someone so badly and then laugh at it. Do they think it’s funny making people feel like they aren’t worth anything? I sure hope not, because to me that is the least funny or cool thing to do.
One day I was sitting in Geometry, trying to figure out what we were doing. I heard the door open, and the teacher put a note on my desk. I opened it, and to my surprise it said Challenge Day, May 3-4, 150 students per day. I felt all the feelings of the first Challenge Day. It was so overpowering! I guess you could say it was like a big weight of hope and wonder lifted off my shoulders. I couldn’t contain myself. Right after class, I ran to my locker and told my friend about the good news; she was almost as excited as I was. This inspired me to do my best to be the change.
Probably the biggest reason I was so excited is because the program is coming for two days, and now instead of 100 kids we can have 150 per day. Last time, the seniors couldn’t go. It didn’t seem fair, but now we can include seniors. This also made students more accepting of Challenge Day.
Last week while I was at my locker, Mrs. Hewson came up to me and said she had a question. She told me that she talked to some people, and they thought it would be a good idea if we were to start a Be the Change team. I was super excited; I told her it was a wonderful idea! She then asked if I would like to be the leader of the group. I quickly agreed. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I now realize how much this affected me, and that I will continue to live my life as a better person. I want to strive for the best that I can be.
I am now focusing on the goal of college. I plan on going to Southeastern Freewill Baptist Bible College in North Carolina. My goal is to eventually receive a Master’s degree in Early Childhood Development. I also want to use the skills I have developed to work with children with special needs – not only because I believe I have a passion for it, but also because there are so few people out there who actually want to work with these children and give them a chance. I would love to help them find out how special and wonderful they really are. Being a special needs kid myself, I want to show them that just because you have a disability doesn’t mean that you can’t be who you want to be.
That goes for everyone out there. As long as you have a dream and are willing to follow it and not give up, no one can tear it down. You should always stand up for what you believe is right, and never give in to something that’s not. I truly believe that one person can change the world. I hope to be that person. I want to be looked at as a person who changed the world, not a person who stood there and watched everything pass by.