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Published: Tuesday, 10/12/2010

Gateway students take up Rachel's Challenge

BY JANET ROMAKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Rachel Joy Scott was eating lunch with a friend outside her high school on April 20, 1999.

Where she sat is where she died, the first person killed at Columbine High School in what was the worst school massacre in U.S. history.

Since then, millions of students have been touched by Rachel through an initiative that challenges children to act with kindness toward others, including classmates and teachers; brothers and sisters.

During a Rachel's Challenge program at Maumee's Gateway Middle School last week, students and staff were moved to tears by Rachel's inspirational life and her tragic death, and many in the auditorium audience vowed to make changes in their behavior - changes that can start a chain reaction and change the world.

This wasn't a one-day, feel-good event. Rather, it was an emotional kick-start to improve the environment at the school and to spark positive interactions.

The goal is to "keep the positive energy going and hope it leaks out to the community," Gateway Principal Dwight Fertig said. The school was awarded a grant to cover costs for the Rachel's Challenge program.

A new Gateway organization, the Chain Links Club, will keep the momentum going through projects and special activities during the school year.

During a training session after the schoolwide Rachel's Challenge assembly, about 60 students brainstormed ideas for the new club, such as putting pen to paper to write letters to janitors, telling them how much their work is appreciated.

Or, keeping track of random acts of kindness on slips of construction paper that later can be fashioned into a paper chain.

Chris Hall of Denver, a friend of the Scott family and the presenter for the Rachel's Challenge program last week, said paper chains are a visible way students "can see and feel the difference you're making."

Starting a chain reaction is a hallmark of Rachel's legacy.

The longest Chain Links paper chain is 28 miles long, and represents 1 million acts of kindness, Mr. Hall said. Gateway could hold a Rachel Rally at the end of the school year to display its paper chain and to celebrate the positive impact students have had on their community and school, he said.

Mr. Hall said everyone can make a difference in the lives of others, and students paid close attention to the program's message centered on kindness, compassion, respect, and helping others.

He issued students several challenges: follow the Golden Rule (treat others how you want to be treated); dream big and believe in yourself; appreciate everyone and mock no one; forgive and be forgiven, and embrace the power of positive gossip (say nice things about others).

Lucas Getzinger, 14, an eighth grader at Gateway, said the Rachel's Challenge event "was a great program.

"It gives kids the sense they are not alone. It gives them the sense they can be part of something that can eventually change the world."

After a video presentation on the Rachel Challenge, which included news footage the day of the shooting as well as several Scott family photographs, students returned to their classes.

Dozens of students left the auditorium visibly shaken. Some forced back tears; others cried openly.

A few students embraced each other, saying "Sorry, I'm just so sorry."

Mr. Hall predicted the "first practical application" for students would occur at home where moms, dads, brothers, and sisters would get hugs, apologies, and promises to behave better.

In other words, the story told by Rachel's brother Craig hit home with many students. The morning of the shooting, Craig's foot dragging had made Rachel late for class, and en route to school, he repeatedly interrupted a favorite song Rachel had been listening to. Getting out of the car, he had slammed the door in the way teenagers do in a fit of frustration.

The slam of the car door haunted Craig who later came to terms with that as well as his intense hatred of the two shooters.

Several Gateway students admitted they often fight with their brothers and sisters, though they really, truly love their family members.

Krystal Freyre, an eighth-grade student, said she and her brother sometimes don't get along, but "I love my brother to death," and as she listened to the videotaped message from Rachel's brother, she wanted to reach out and talk to her own brother.

People shouldn't wait to apologize or to tell their families how much they are appreciated, she said. If someone dies, you don't get a second chance to make things right or to make things better, she said.

Eighth-grader Noah Petrillo, 14, said everyone messes up and it's important to forgive yourself and to learn to be more forgiving. Classmates nodded in agreement.

Mr. Hall emphasized that Rachel's Challenge isn't an "anti-bullying" campaign. "We're not 'anti' anything," he said. The initiative encourages people to lead lives committed to kindness, he said.

On a sign in front of Gateway, Rachel speaks out to the students, speaks out to the community, in her own words: "People will never know how far a little kindness can go."



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