A motive for change

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“Be the change you want to see in the world.”This famous quote by Mahatma Ghandi calls people to action. It is also the theme of Challenge Day, an event which provides participants with the tools to break down the walls of separation and isolation, and build new levels of respect and communication within their schools and communities.

Washougal and Excelsior high school students, along with teachers, administrators and community members, had the opportunity to participate in Challenge Day last week.

WHS counselors Christina Mackey and Owen Sanford first heard about it from a student intern, who said he’d participated in it at another school and it, “changed his life.”

“When we heard that, we had to investigate,” Sanford said. “I started researching it, and got pretty overwhelmed by the costs and how to make it all happen. Then we heard there was a grant opportunity through Clark County Department of Community Services, and so we applied and got it.”

The goal of Challenge Day was to make Washougal and Excelsior high schools more welcoming to all students, increasing feelings of self-esteem, and to eliminate the acceptance of teasing, bullying and violence. Participants were selected by counselors, teachers and administrators.

“Trying to plan it all felt pretty overwhelming, especially since none of us had done it before,” Mackey said. “Kris Henriksen, who oversees the Clark County Teen Talk program, did so much detailed logistical work. We are very grateful to her.”

Just as the counselors weren’t sure what to expect, neither were the students who were invited to participate. Everyone was called to an assembly in the WHS gym and some students were given pink slips of paper. They came from all different peer groups and socioeconomic status, so none were quite sure why they were being grouped together for the event.

“It was hard to get them to do it,” Mackey said. “Some of the students were really confused as to what was going on, and they thought it was only for the troublemakers. Most teenagers don’t like anything that is out of their comfort zone.”

WHS junior Cassidy Sanders was one of these.

“Ms. Mackey literally had to hunt me down to get me to participate,” she said. “All I really knew is that I’d be out of class all day. I talked to other people and it sounded like a support group, and I really didn’t want to do that.”

When Challenge Day arrived, a hesitant Sanders arrived in front of the gym and saw several other students, all gathered in their cliques.

“We were all wondering what the heck was going on,” she said. “We went inside the gym and the teachers were all dancing! We all thought that was pretty awkward.”

But over the course of several icebreaker activities and “family groups,” which included an adult and four to five students who didn’t usually cross paths, everyone became more comfortable.

“We had to talk about the happiest and saddest times of our lives,” Sanders said. “By the end of the day, everyone was crying.”

Sanders said the event changed her life.

“I know that’s hard to believe that something like that could happen in a day, but it did,” she said. “It was the most hurtful, heartbreaking, life changing day I’ve ever had.”

Sanders said she has been going through hard times with severe illness in her family, and has struggled to remain upbeat.

“It’s really hard for me to laugh anymore,” she said. “I just wasn’t myself. After Challenge Day, I realized I’m not the only one experiencing this. I have other people who understand what is going on. My attitude has totally changed.”

Ninth-grader Daylen Domeyer wasn’t sure what to expect with Challenge Day, either.

“I thought it would be one of those assemblies where people talk about stuff, but this was quite different,” he said. “But when I walked in and saw all the teachers dancing, I knew it was going to be interesting.”

Domeyer said he’s been bullied for years and had basically closed himself off to everyone.

“Now, I am really grateful I was able to do this. Everyone cried that day, at least once. People are much friendlier to me in the hallways and I am so grateful. It really helped us to understand each other better.”

Senior Chandler Burton said he tends to tease people as a part of his sense of humor, but after Challenge Day, he’s rethinking it.

“It made me think as a person, how my teasing other people impacts them,” he said. “I need to learn to think more before I speak.”

Teacher Rachel Fouts-Carrico also participated in Challenge Day.

“Even before I really knew all of what it was about, I wanted to be a part of it,” she said. “I thought it was a great day. By the end of it, the kids there were totally changed. I thought it was well put together and efficient.”

Carol Boyden, WHS associate principal, said the best part of the Challenge Day was that there was a time to be serious, and a time to be “wild and crazy.”

“The thing that really stood out in my mind was one of the last activities of the day,” she said. “We were paired up with another person and asked to be their cheerleader. I had to go first and my student was jumping up and down, and I did as well. He was laughing so hard tears were coming down his face. It was nice to see him just be a kid.”

Boyden said Challenge Day was one of the most significant events she’s experienced in her career.

“I have been in education a long time,” she said. “This has been one of the 10 most powerful days I’ve spent.”Drama teacher Kelly Gregerson??? agreed.

“I’ve already seen a change in the kids,” he said. “It’s a different vibe in the hallways. People from every social strata are smiling at each other. The level of honesty at the event was pretty stunning for high schoolers.”

All involved agreed that the most moving activity of the day was “cross the line,” where participants went across a line on the floor if a statement applied to them or a family member. The statements dealt with bullying, drug abuse, sexual abuse, depression, suicide and other very tough topics.

“It was very emotional and very sad,” Sanders said. “At the end of it, there wasn’t one person in the room who wasn’t crying.”

Burton agreed.

“It definitely made me cry,” he said. “It really made me think about my life and what I was going to do to change it.”

Domeyer described it as “shocking.”

“It was shocking to see how many people crossed the line, and a multiple number of times,” he said. “But we comforted each other and remained silent and respectful. If someone every has the chance to participate, they should do it.”