Of all the assemblies and presentations Cinnaminson High School principal Darlene Llewellyn has seen in her many years as an educator, few have had an impact as great as Rachel’s Challenge.
“Every other presentation or program we’ve brought into the school … (the message) may live a week, a month, but you’ll never see them live throughout a year, or two years,” she said. “It’s not just about what to tell students not to do … It’s literally telling the students how to live their lives differently, and that’s a powerful message.”
Rachel’s Challenge was started by the family of Rachel Scott, the first victim of the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, whose kind and compassionate words—retrieved from journals and writings discovered following her death—and actions inspired a movement. The nonprofit organization visited Cinnaminson High School in 2011, and returned Wednesday to further its message.
High school students took part in “Rachel’s Legacy”—a follow-up to the Rachel’s Challenge assembly two years ago—and learned about the positive impact the slain 17-year-old had on the lives of those around her, while students from the middle school experienced the original Rachel’s Challenge assembly.
Nearly 600 middle school students filled the high school auditorium and watched with rapt attention news coverage of the Columbine tragedy and stories from Rachel’s friends and family about the kind of person she was. Some students shed tears during part of the presentation.
“Wherever we go, the cultures of the schools are always different in some ways,” said presenter Meichelle Gibson, who estimated that she’s spoken in front of roughly 80,000 students in about eight states. “But at the end of the day, all the schools have the same issues … If you can just shine a light on things like kindness and compassion, then we’re able to take down those things that we don’t like. Those behaviors become less and less.”
Gibson and school administrators acknowledged that the message of Rachel’s Challenge is even more vital now, with the rise of cyber bullying. Gibson said the organization has a social media project as part of the Friends of Rachel Club, which invites students to send positive messages to friends and acquaintances.
“And if they find someone who says something negative, then they flood that same person with a whole bunch of positive messages so that negative message is gone,” explained Gibson.
Cinnaminson started its own Friends of Rachel Club immediately after the 2011 assembly, and the group has been involved in several activities over the last two years, including a Free Hugs Day and an exercise in which students created cutouts of their handprints, wrote positive messages on them, and plastered them all over the school on lockers and classroom doors.
"The kids that did it, loved it," said special education teacher Tamara Gross, an advisor for the Friends of Rachel Club. "They were so proud of the enormity of it, and the kids that received the messages were thrilled about it as well."
“Spreading random acts of kindness—that’s the idea,” explained Llewellyn.
Gross said those small actions are at the core of the club’s mission, and the overall message of Rachel’s Challenge.
During her presentation, Gibson told a story about how Rachel got her friends to sit and have lunch with a new student who was sitting all by herself.
“And instantly, her worst day became her best day,” Gibson said. “All because one person went out of her way to show a little kindness.”
It’s difficult to quantify the impact Rachel’s Challenge has had or will have on students, guidance counselor Donna Lobascio said. “But that can’t stop you from doing things like this.
"The students in the club, they’re seeing what (their actions are) doing to each student … and they’re being able to make someone’s day," said Lobascio. "We’re just facilitators."The day assemblies for the high school and middle school students were followed by a presentation Wednesday night that was open to parents and other members of the community.
For more information, visit the Rachel's Challenge website or check them out on Facebook.
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