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Tragic death gives life purpose

Craig Scott stands in front of an image of his late sister, Rachel Scott, at an assembly Monday at Monroe High School. Scott was recently in town to help implement “Rachel’s Challenge,” an organization founded in memory of his sister, into Albany public and private schools.

Craig Scott stands in front of an image of his late sister, Rachel Scott, at an assembly Monday at Monroe High School. Scott was recently in town to help implement “Rachel’s Challenge,” an organization founded in memory of his sister, into Albany public and private schools.

ALBANY -- April 20, 1999, was a day that changed Craig Scott's life forever.

He was a student at Columbine High School, studying for a test in the school's library when a shooting spree began that would leave more than a dozen people dead.

One of them was his 17-year-old sister, Rachel Scott. An organization was soon founded in her memory known as "Rachel's Challenge," which, based on her acts of kindness and the contents of the writings she left behind, promotes a message of compassion in the hopes of preventing teen bullying and violence.

Millions have heard the message of Rachel's Challenge and what it represents, including the people of Albany this week.

Over the years, the program has opened many hearts.

"It takes its toll to do this on me, but when I see people wanting to take the challenge, it's worth it," Scott said in an interview Thursday with The Albany Herald. "If I can use my sister's story to do that, I will.

"Everyone has a story. We can share our stories and find that that's a way to connect."

In order to do this, Scott has traveled to every state in the country several times. His most recent stint was in Albany this week, where he conducted school assemblies and community meetings.

This was a follow-up to the meetings his father, Darrell Scott, conducted in front of Albany community leaders and educators last month.

In the years that Rachel's Challenge has been in operation, there have been a number of memorable moments for its presenters -- including a rally that took place in Texas a few years ago.

"When I saw students walking along with their paper chains, there was a synergy," Scott recalled.

The paper chains represent acts of kindness performed by students, who write down their actions on pieces of paper and sign their names to them. The idea for the chains comes from a quote in an essay Rachel Scott wrote a few weeks before her death.

Rachel wrote: "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. People will never know how far a little kindness can go."

A similar event is set to take place on Nov. 11 at the Georgia Dome, where children from "Friends of Rachel" clubs will come together for fellowship and also to construct a paper chain.

"We had a chain in Dallas that was 28 miles long, and we want to beat that chain," Scott said.

Students from the Albany area are being invited to that event as well, Scott added.

The most important thing Scott remembers about his sister, who was the first to die in Columbine shooting, was her sincerity.

"People saw (sincerity) in her," Scott said. "Outcasts connected with her, and she connected with them. She was involved in a church youth group, and at the end of those meetings, she would be praying, thinking and crying for other people.

"She had a deep passion for others."

In the Columbine library, there were 10 people killed, two of whom -- Isaiah Shoels and Matt Kechter -- were under the same table Scott was.

"There were not so much thoughts going through my mind as there were feelings. I felt fear as people were being killed around me," Scott recalled. "I think that kind of fear was paralyzing.

"It was a numbing shock, a surreal feeling. What helped me pull through was my family, friends, faith and people pulling together."

Following the shooting, prayers were received in Littleton, Colo., from people around the world -- something Scott said was also a critical part of recovery.

"When these tragedies happen, I hope people will rally around each other," he said. "(After the Columbine shooting) people cooked meals for us, wrote us letters. People were very compassionate to us."

In the end, there was a lot of good that came out of the Columbine tragedy.

"A mission came out of it," Scott said. "For me, there has been a lot of purpose involved in sharing (Rachel's) story and challenges.

"It has so inspired me that now I realize how much I'm worth. That's huge in and of itself."

Scott said that officials with Rachel's Challenge have received 350 emails from students that were contemplating suicide, but choose to live following their exposure to the message. This year, presenters with the organization are expected to reach out to 4 million people in live settings.

"It's an inspiring story that enables people to go out of their way for each other," Scott said. "It's very challenging for us. As it gets bigger, we have a sense of responsibility to help.

"It's exciting and challenging."

Based on the response in Albany, Scott said the program has a real chance of working here.

"I've seen a great response in Albany from students who want to see their schools changed and be accepted for who they are," he said. "I've met students here that have felt a sense of hopelessness about their situations.

"When people feel like things are bad, and can't get better, that's hopelessness. When we see that, we have to recognize that in a big way."

There are some things Scott himself has gained from sharing his sister's story.

"I've gained some strength and some insight into people from different places and backgrounds," he said. "I've recognized that people have common struggles, and that there are common solutions.

"I feel this has a shot of working in Albany. I hope to come back to continue to share Rachel's story and other stories that will keep the message going."

Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital brought the program to Albany, and is partnering with the Dougherty County School System and area private schools to formally implement it into the community.