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Rachel’s Challenge teaches Meridian students kindness

Meridian middle and high school students fill the high school gym Wednesday, Sept. 9, to listen to Rachel’s Challenge presenter Nicole Voelkel speak about the life and impact of Rachel Joy Scott, the first student killed in the Columbine High School shootings.
Meridian middle and high school students fill the high school gym Wednesday, Sept. 9, to listen to Rachel’s Challenge presenter Nicole Voelkel speak about the life and impact of Rachel Joy Scott, the first student killed in the Columbine High School shootings. The Bellingham Herald

At one point, almost all of the students packed in the Meridian High School gym Wednesday, Sept. 9, had their hands up.

The high school and middle school students had just been asked to raise their hands if they were ever around someone who bullied them or didn’t make them feel good.

Most teenagers know what it’s like to be in that situation. On Wednesday, hundreds of students gathered in the gym to accept Rachel’s Challenge — a national movement in schools that aims to spread kindness and compassion.

The challenge is named after Rachel Scott, the first person killed in the 1999 Columbine High School shootings that ended with 15 people dead outside of Denver, Colo.

Schools in Whatcom County have been accepting Rachel’s Challenge for years. Meridian schools, for example, have an assembly about every three years to remind students of the message.

The challenge, based on the life and diary of Rachel Scott before she was fatally shot, asks kids to not judge people, to dream big, to choose positive influences, to speak with kindness and then to start a chain of kindness.

Nicole Voelkel, a presenter for Rachel’s Challenge, led the assembly Wednesday. After the assembly, a small group of students gathered to share stories and brainstorm ideas for improving the school culture. Some opened up about situations where they were bullied; others shared strategies they use to reach out to classmates.

Meridian teachers say they have seen a difference in students’ attitudes since the last time the assembly was held. Mary Wilson, a bilingual paraeducator, said it helps students be aware of how they are making others feel.

“Now that we have that awareness, I definitely have seen a difference,” she said.

Meridian Middle School Principal Jerry Sanderson said discipline issues have declined since the last assembly three years ago. The message of kindness and compassion, he said, gives teachers a platform they can use to better communicate with students.

He said that the message connects even more with students who hear about school shootings on the news. With all of the violence they hear about, it’s even more important that they learn kindness and compassion.

“I think (kids) can play a part in changing the attitude in our society,” Sanderson said.

Students said they relate to the stories presented as part of Rachel’s Challenge.

Yashleen Singh, 14, said she has bullied other kids before, but she’s also knows what it’s like to be the new kid at school and feel left out. The presentation gave her a better understanding of what to do when someone is being picked on and how to treat others on a daily basis.

“A simple good morning and a smile can make a big difference,” Singh said.

Cole Buys, 15, said he accepted Rachel’s Challenge three years ago when he was in middle school. The message now, when he’s older, was even clearer.

“I know what (students who get bullied) go through,” Buys said, “and I want to help them and be there for them.”

Families were invited to a community event Wednesday night that featured another presentation about Rachel’s Challenge.

Sanderson said it’s important that people, both students and parents, be reminded to care for others.

“I, too, have these stories,” Sanderson said. “Those simple acts of kindness that people do resonate with everybody.”

Reach Wilson Criscione at 360-756-2803 or wilson.criscione@bellinghamherald.com.

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