Rising to the challenge of kindness | SteamboatToday.com

Rising to the challenge of kindness

Danie Harrelson

— With broom in hand, Gene Leck tried to help sweep up the small remnants of changed lives that littered the Hayden Middle School gym Thursday.

Tissue and boxes of tissue strewn about the gym floor gave only a slight indication of the change that had just occurred in the attitudes of 68 seventh and eighth graders.

Leck, a senior at Hayden High School, volunteered to help lead one of the many small groups of middle school students that participated in Challenge Day, an all-day program sponsored by Grand Futures Prevention Coalition of Routt County.

Every student who participated in the program was touched in some way, so much that they weren’t afraid to cry in front of their peers, Leck said.

“There wasn’t a dry eye,” he said. “That’s why you see so many tissues here.”

The Challenge Day program can be an emotional experience for students when they discover they can be vulnerable with each other and share things they wouldn’t normally share, Angela Kimmes of Grand Futures said.

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Students first found safety and acceptance in their small groups and were able to open up as they became more comfortable with people in their group, Kimmes said.

Vinny Ferraro and Donna Stevens, both of San Francisco, travel throughout the country sharing the program’s goals with middle and high school students.

They presented the same program to Soroco High School students on Wednesday and Steamboat Springs Middle School students on Tuesday.

“They learned to look past their differences and come together despite those differences,” Ferarro said. “Every kid responds in some way to this program.”

Ferraro and Stevens said they wanted to help students improve their self-esteem and show them how to transform dangerous peer pressure into positive peer support.

This lessens the likelihood of students accepting teasing, harassment and violence toward other students, Stevens said.

Ferarro encouraged students to direct their new-found positive energy toward making their school a more positive place.

“What you’re feeling in this room is power,” Ferraro told the students. “It’s not ours, it’s yours. Imagine how you could change your school if you took that power to school tomorrow.”

Students first felt the full impact of Challenge Day during the “power shuffle,” Kimmes said. Kimmes explained that students stood along a line and were told to step forward when a specific situation applied to them.

Situations like exposure to substance abuse, physical abuse and suicide drew some responses, she said. But it was when bullying and teasing were mentioned that only few of the students did not step forward.

“I think they realized then that they are all in this together; that they are all affected by this,” Kimmes said.

A time for apologies and forgiveness followed, with most of the students stepping up to the microphone to say how sorry they were for being rude and unkind to their classmates.

Football players awkwardly hugged their shorter peers, parents told their children how much they loved them, and siblings finally shrugged off old differences and showed some affection.

“I’m proud of you for being enough of a man to apologize to the people you have teased,” junior Becky Bennett told her little brother, Andy. Andy, a seventh grader, gladly welcomed his big sister’s apology.

Middle school secretary Barbara Manzanares was one of the parents who led a small group. Her son, Tyler, a seventh grader, followed the lead of many students who decided they weren’t too embarrassed to show their moms or dads how much they loved them.

“It’s hard to have your mom in school, watching over your shoulder,” Manzanares said.

With that, Tyler Manzanaras gave his mother a hug.

Middle school teachers who watched their students form relationships with students that they never before would have talked to agreed the program was successful in changing attitudes.

“Students really didn’t have a good idea of what they were getting into,” Amy Pounds, who teaches eighth-grade English and world history, said. “It’s saying a lot about these kids that they would allow themselves to open up like this.”

Pounds said she is hopeful that students will not forget how good it felt to accept each other without reservation and will come to return to school with a different way of thinking about themselves and each other.

“There’s not one person who at least didn’t take some of this to heart today,” she said.

“It was a great thing that happened in that gym.”