Deerfield-Windsor students, from left, Gina Fortt, Maggie Duvall, Emily Gay and William Ashley participate in a Friends of Rachel's Club meeting conducted by sponsor Tina Hood Thursday over lunch at the upper campus. "Rachel's Challenge" honors the memory of 17-year-old Rachel Scott who was killed at Columbine High School in 1999. (Dec. 8, 2012)
ALBANY, Ga. — When addressing the significance of a movement designed to promote kindness and compassion, Phoebe Network of Trust Director Angie Barber was reminded of a quote from American author and poet Maya Angelou:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
“Rachel’s Challenge” was established following the death of 17-year-old Rachel Scott during the shootings at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. The tragedy resulted in the death of 14 others, including the two gunmen, who were students at the school. Since then, the goal of the movement has been to “start a chain reaction” of kindness and compassion.
Over the years, the cause has left its mark on communities across the United States and around the globe. The Albany area is no exception.
Rachel’s Challenge was implemented in Southwest Georgia last year after the initiative was officially accepted by the area’s schools as well as its community leaders, and has since been embraced by various entities in the region.
In the Dougherty County School System and at Deerfield-Windsor School, administrators have worked with Teenage Support Council (TASCO) teams as well as Friends of Rachel clubs to help connect all the dots at the area’s middle school and high school campuses.
Among the core members of the Friends of Rachel Club at Deerfield-Windsor School is William Ashley, a senior who is mentoring the group’s younger members so that they are equipped to move the cause forward in later years.
“When it first started, teachers were asking for volunteers,” Ashley said. “I didn’t know much about it until (Rachel’s family) came.
“I took it by feeling because I didn’t know what it was going to be, but I thought it would be something new. It is definitely important to have (kindness and compassion).”
The club at Deerfield meets, on average, every other week. The meetings are used as brainstorming sessions on ways to help move the cause forward. Club members have delivered meals, coordinated “Mix It Up” lunches to encourage interaction among students who typically sit at different tables in the cafeteria, sent thank you letters to teachers and administrators, posted motivational pieces on school walls and handed out stickers at assemblies.
The club is even working to produce and send a “Get Well Soon” video to a teacher who has been battling a recent illness.
“We start with relationships within groups and spend some time connecting,” Ashley said of the club’s meetings. “It is a relaxed setting, but efficient.
“I feel something along these lines is needed everywhere.”
While some of the energy for the cause has waned since it was first introduced, Ashley said there is potential for Rachel’s Challenge to have a long-term impact at Deerfield.
“It has had a positive impact on a good number of students, especially with the ninth- and 10th-grade students,” the 12th-grader said. “(Within the club) there is a strong motivation for change because they are showing up at meetings. I can tell it is important to them somehow.
“If we can find a way to keep the club running, it will have a long-term impact.”
The effort to get Rachel’s Challenge started here was springboarded by the Centennial Celebration Committee at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital. The concept was formally introduced at community sessions led by the Scott family in July and August of last year.
“We trained all of the students, faculty, parents and community leaders — including faith leaders (on the initiative),” said Barber. “Anyone we’ve talked to about Rachel’s Challenge has wanted to be a part of it.”
At Westover High School, the cause was set in motion through its TASCO team, which consists of students trained to assist in situations that might prompt an emotional crisis for their peers as well as help maintain a positive environment.
The Westover campus has been focused a lot on the little things to help promote a favorable atmosphere, from leaving candy dishes in the front office to conducting appreciation initiatives for the school’s custodians. The team is actively involved in helping new students get acclimated and also maintains a suggestion box in the school’s media center for students to submit referrals to TASCO for those in need of the team’s help.
The group is planning to host an anti-bullying seminar in Westover’s media center during its three lunch periods on Thursday, during which the student body will be given an opportunity to provide feedback on what can be done to more effectively combat bullying.
MOTIVATED TO END BULLYING
One of the TASCO members, 12th-grader Elexus Winbush, was bullied when she was in middle school. She eventually stuck up for herself and has since been known to step in for other bullying victims who have trouble advocating for themselves.
“At the end of the day, it is about what you do to help others,” she said. “I don’t have to know you, I’m going to step in.
“(Rachel’s Challenge) was much needed here because it shows that one person could change the lives of many. You never know what a person is going through.”
Robert Hudson, a sophomore at the school, felt compelled to get involved after being bullied in middle school.
“I was motivated to end it (bullying) for all people,” he said. “Knowing that makes me feel like a better person.”
As it did at Deerfield, the message of Rachel Scott’s life and her theories on kindness and compassion have hit home at Westover — so much so that students will often ask themselves what the late 17-year-old would do if she were put in their place or dealing with a particular situation, administrators say.
Both Westover students said the initiative has made enough of a difference for students who were once enemies to eventually become friends, and enough of an impact for their peers to be able to carry the lessons they have learned into the real world.
Ultimately, some say, ending bullying and being successful at establishing a strong environment for compassion starts at a basic level.
“Start with yourself; examine yourself,” Winbush said. “Don’t bring anyone else down. It doesn’t matter what they do.
“It starts with you. Set a good example.”
As part of the cause, the schools as well as area businesses and individuals have been encouraged to construct paper chains representing individual acts of kindness. With all the entities in the region combined creating chains of their own, officials are expecting for the greater Albany area — which includes many of the counties surrounding Dougherty — to produce a 29-mile-long chain.
Westover’s chain is more than 1,400 feet long, students and administrators at the school say.
12 DAYS OF KINDNESS
Another part of the movement is the “12 Days of Kindness” taking place through Wednesday as a continued effort to move the cause forward. Quotes from the writings of the initiative’s namesake are being read during morning announcements at the schools each day, and essay contests on topics specific to Rachel’s Challenge are being written while the paper chains continue to grow.
Also in conjunction with “12 Days of Kindness,” a drive known as “Coins for Curt” is ongoing. The drive’s participants are seeking to raise money for a student at Lake Park Elementary School needed to offset his medical expenses — and an automated external defibrillator was expected to be donated to the Albany-Dougherty Search and Rescue Team during the “12 Days of Kindness” time frame at the request of Albany cardiologist Dr. Kamil Hanna.
On Wednesday, those who have constructed chains — whether they be schools, businesses or individuals — are being encouraged to display them outdoors for the public to see as well as share their stories while the chains that have been constructed can be measured and reported to the Network of Trust.
Despite the fact that a Georgia law prohibits bullying, having to endure it is sometimes still regarded as a “rite of passage.” As a result, officials say, such behaviors go unnoticed or ignored — in turn reinforcing that belief.
The consequences can range from poor academic achievement to low self-esteem to suicide.
“There are signals out there that young people get based on individuality,” said Darrell Sabbs, community benefits coordinator at Phoebe. “People are born with a desire to love, but hurt people hurt people. These children, some of them, have been hurt. If you don’t stop and derail it ...
“It is very simple. You don’t have to go out of your comfort zone. Being kind is so easy.”
Phoebe officials, including Barber, describe the feedback they have received on the program as “tremendously honest” and say it has sparked conversations about bullying that might not have come to light otherwise.
“It is a true signal that everyone wants to see bullying go away,” Barber said.
Research indicates that the problem of bullying continues to be widespread, with more than one source indicating that roughly a third of all school-aged children in the U.S. are being bullied each year. Statistics from the National Bullying Prevention Center show that 64 percent of children who are bullied do not report it.
Meanwhile, Georgia Student Health Survey II results from the 2009-10 academic year for those in grades 6, 8, 10 and 12 indicate that 16 percent of students reported being bullied in the previous 30 days, 33 percent reported being picked on or teased at school in the previous 30 days, and 25 percent of students reported that they don’t feel safe at school.