EVANSTON — “People will never know how far a little kindness can go.” These words were written by teenager Rachel Joy Scott in her final school essay shortly before she became the first victim in the Columbine school shooting nearly two decades ago. These words are now part of the message to people taking part in Rachel’s Challenge, a program focused on changing school and community cultures by replacing bullying, violence and negativity with kindness and compassion.
Schools in Mountain View and Lyman took part in the Rachel’s Challenge program this week, with student presentations and activities during the school day and an evening presentation for parents and community members held in the Mountain View High School auditorium on Tuesday, Feb. 19.
Rachel’s Challenge is a nonprofit organization started by Rachel’s family following her death. Finding inspiration in the words she left behind in her diaries, as well as the multiple messages they received from Rachel’s classmates about the impacts of her kindness, her family launched the program in an effort to make positive changes in students’ lives and remedy the problems of bullying, isolation, teen suicide, discrimination and school violence.
There are differing program components to ensure that presentations and the activities are age-appropriate for students from kindergarten through high school, as well as components aimed to keep the positivity going in a school long after the initial presentation. Since its inception, the program has been introduced in more than 25,000 schools in the United States.
Rachel’s Challenge was brought to Bridger Valley schools through a grant from FCCLA (Family, Career and Community Leaders of America) and funding for the Rachel’s Challenge program was donated by Foster and Lynn Friess.
Angela Sweep, state adviser for FCCLA, said they were contacted by the Rachel’s Challenge program last summer after the Friess family reached out and asked them to get it into as many Wyoming schools as possible. Sweep said she experienced Rachel’s Challenge firsthand at a conference in the fall.
“After seeing it, I wanted every student in Bridger Valley to see it,” she said. “Mr. Friess’ donation to Rachel’s Challenge made it happen for our community.”
At the Tuesday evening program, Larry Scott, Rachel’s uncle, spoke to parents, students and community members about his niece’s legacy. He said Rachel’s family members were unaware of the extent of her thoughts and deeds until recovering her diary from her backpack — both marred with bullet holes — following the shooting and being contacted by several of her classmates. The words she had written were those of a seemingly far older and wiser person than a young teen girl.
Rachel had written about her desire to reach out and show kindness to everyone, but especially to three specific groups, including special needs students, students new to the school and students being picked on and bullied. Larry said one particular student who was being bullied reached out to Rachel’s family to tell them how her kindness and efforts to defend him were directly responsible for saving his life when he decided not to follow through on a plan to kill himself.
Several people in the audience Tuesday evening could be seen wiping away tears and sniffling as Larry shared videos and memories of his niece and spoke about her premonition that she would die at a young age. He asked everyone in attendance to think about the people they love the most and promise to tell them so. “We take the people we’re closest to for granted,” he said. “We use and abuse them. We need to tell people how much we love them.”
Larry shared his belief that words are powerful. “It matters how we talk to each other, what we say and how we say it,” he said. He admonished parents to watch their words, especially when speaking in anger, because children are always listening. “More is caught than taught at home,” he said. “Words both affect and infect.”
Rachel’s Challenge program participants are given five specific challenges, including looking for the best in others, dreaming big, choosing positive influences, speaking with kindness and starting their own chain reaction. The latter challenge is also attributable to Rachel’s writing when she wrote that one kind and compassionate deed by a single person could start a chain reaction and create change.
Larry said the challenges and messages shared through the program have saved lives, both through hundreds of suicidal students deciding not to act and through preventing school shootings. He said there had been at least seven school shootings prevented when students came forward with information after participating in the program. “We receive stories every single month,” he said, from participants crediting the program with savings their lives.
He also shared stories of students who had been responsible for bullying who were impacted by the program and took steps to make amends. Larry said the program helps people empathize with others. “People bully and mistreat each other because they don’t value each other,” he said.
Another part of the program involves launching Friends of Rachel Clubs at participating schools, which are basically kindness clubs focused on doing good deeds. Larry said there are more than 20,000 such clubs in the United States currently, and students in the Bridger Valley have already stepped up to get them going in Lyman and Mountain View schools.
Toward the end of the program, Larry urged people to think about their legacy. “When you die people aren’t going to talk about how nice your house was or what kind of car you had. They’re going to remember what you did for other people,” he said. “When you’re gone, what are people going to say about you?”
Additional information about Rachel’s Challenge can be found at rachelschallenge.org.