Rachel's Challenge asks students to create a chain reaction of kindness and compassion. The program is named for Rachel Scott, the first student to die in the Columbine shootings on April 20, 1999. She left behind six journals that inspired Rachel's Challenge, a program founded by her family to make a positive change in the world. "It inspires people to do things that they normally wouldn't do," said Aquinas senior Bethany Davis.
Davis and over 800 of her classmates signed a pledge to spread kindness and compassion. "It really gives you that feeling that, hey, I don't have to do anything great, all I have to do is stop by somebody and say 'hi' or help them pick up their books," she said.
Bill Sanders helped design Rachel's Challenge with Rachel Scott's family twelve years ago. He has traveled the world presenting the program, which aims to help kids on the fringe feel included. "We're challenging kids to care more about someone else when you walk down the hallway instead of just looking for a mirror to see how you look," he said.
Rachel's Challenge was born out of school violence. It also carries a strong message about bullying. Aquinas Principal Ted Mancini said that was part of the appeal of bringing it to the school. "If you're not proactive and you don't address what's happening with students and you don't make it a part of the regular conversation, you're not really ever going to get to the heart of helping it stop," he said.
Sanders made a presentation to the Aquinas student body in the morning, then held a training session with student leaders and faculty in the afternoon before hosing a session for parents and the community Tuesday evening. To help his message carry beyond the initial feeling of excitement, the Friends of Rachel Club exists to encourage students to continue the chain reaction of kindness and compassion throughout the year. During the training session, Davis' group embraced a popular idea, used at other schools. "If you just see someone doing something nice for someone else, you write their name down and at the end of the week you'll post a paper with all of the people that have done something nice and you'll put it on the wall," she said.
Sanders said one of the keys to Rachel's Challenge is to stay positive. "We call it the FOR Club because we're for kindness, respect and compassion," he said about the Friends of Rachel. "We're not against stuff, we're not on a witch hunt against bullies."
Sanders admitted it can be tough for some kids to embrace the notion of approaching an unpopular student because it asks them to operate outside of their safe zone. "Yes it's scary and yes you might get rejected, and yes it might be embarressing but lives are at stake and that's been our challenge, and kids are taking it," he said. "It's really quite amazing. They want to help, they're hungry for it."
Sanders encourages students and their families to look for the best in others. To date, Rachel's Challenge has reached 16 million people worldwide.