Take a minute to think back to your days at high school. Do you remember walking down those hallways feeling a sense of love and community? If your high school was anything like mine, then probably not. A California based organization called Challenge Day is seeking to change that.
This past Tuesday I volunteered with Challenge Day, an experiential workshop that takes high schoolers out of their comfort zone and builds empathy, love, trust, and new friendships. I walked into that high school, and honestly it brought back memories of desperately trying to fit in, and feeling judged and alone. But I left after Challenge Day with 100 new friends, and a hope for a better future.
I first heard of this program on Oprah over five years ago. At the last TLC meeting I met Amy who was talking about how she always wanted to work with the organization. I immediately offered to help her and a few short weeks later we were on our way to Pemberton New Jersey to volunteer at a high school. We didn’t know anyone, but we knew the process and we believed in it. Boy were we blown away!
The program started at 7:30am when the volunteers went through a short orientation with the two facilitators from the program. It was a motley crew of 22 volunteers, mostly teachers, but some parents and the principal, and then us – 2 strangers from New York. We were told that the success of the day depended on us be vulnerable, respectful, and crazy.
Yes, crazy. A huge part of the day was dancing, playing games, and goofing around. The basic idea is that emotions swing like a pendulum and the further you swing one way to enjoy fun activities the further you can swing the other way to experience and release painful emotions. This was incredibly effective. We were able to go from laughing to crying at a snap of their fingers.
We blasted music and danced around the gymnasium as 100 sophomores shuffled in, a little freaked out by our exuberance. Over the course of the day their guards quickly came down. In an activity called, “If you really knew me you would know that…,” I was in a group with five students and I was amazed by their bravery and vulnerability. In a few minutes, five kids who didn’t get along were crying and saying how much they understood what the others were going through.
Then we did an exercise called crossing the line. We all stood on one side of a line and the facilitator would say things like, “Cross the line if you’ve ever been bullied, if you’ve ever felt alone, if you’ve ever considered suicide, if you or someone you love has been abused, etc.” The kids would cross the line whenever the statement was true for them, and then they would look around and see so many other people have been going through the same things, including their teachers and the principal. There wasn’t a dry eye.
One of the things that touched me was when I saw a group of guys all crying and they were hugging each other and telling them it would be ok. I never saw guys expressing emotion like that when I was growing up. I saw students hugging their teachers and telling them they understand. I saw a little goth girl hugging a big football player. While it was hard to see how much these young kids are hurting, it was breath taking to watch them connect over it. They learned that bad things will always happen, but you don’t need to be alone.
At the end of the day the kids joined the movement. It’s called Be The Change, where they agree to act as a team to end bullying, violence, and hatred in their school. They also took turns going up to the mike to apologize to people they hurt. A lot of girls went up and apologized for rumors they spread about another person in the room. They would say things like, “I had no idea what you were going through, and I was just jealous of you, but really I want to be your friend.” Another girl stood up and said, “I want to introduce this girl to you. She just moved here and people have been making fun of her, but I want you to know she’s amazing, and we’re lucky to have her at our school.” Then all of a sudden ten students raced up to give her a group hug. Are you crying yet? I’m a little teary eyed just remembering it.
How much would you give to have had this when you were in high school? I would give anything. If you ask me, learning that they don’t have to be fake, they don’t have to be alone, they don’t have to judge people, and that vulnerability can be a strength is more important than anything else they could have learned in their academic classes. I wish every student could have this opportunity. And I wish that you can too!
If you have a child in the school system you can talk to the administration about booking a workshop. You can visit their website to see a calender of workshops in your area, and volunteer. They don’t come to the East Coast often, so even if a school is 2 hours away I suggest you take advantage of it. Believe me you’ll get so much out of it. You can also donate money to make sure this program is always available. Imagine what a beautiful world it would be if high school didn’t have to suck; if high school was a place where you learned to love, and appreciate people. You can make that possible!