By Joseph Pratt
I’ve covered school events for a while now and one of the things I’ve noticed about South Webster Schools, outside of outstanding academic achievement, is the sense of community the schools and locals all have. I’ve always wondered what brings everyone in that area so closely together and I only recently discovered the love that binds the Jeep community as one.
It began when I was asked to volunteer at a South Webster event last week by Elementary Principal Sandy Smith. I enjoy volunteering and assisting in the community, and with it being within my beat, I agreed. I didn’t even know what I was signing up for.
When I told my wife, Sara, that I was volunteering for this thing called Challenge Day, she became excited and said she would love to help, too. So, we both signed up.
Sara graduated as an alumna of South Webster and participated in the event during her time there, so she began explaining the event in more detail. I found myself instantly regretting my decision, but I could never say no to Sandy Smith, so I kept my promise.
The event was described to me as a day where students get into groups and open up to each other about issues they are going through in their lives. The Challenge Day leaders guide the groups through events designed to familiarize the challengers with each other and to show people are more alike than most realize. Topics of discussion range from drug and alcohol abuse, depression, dreams and aspirations, problems at home or in school, bullying, oppression of all types, and more.
Adults play a vital role in the program, leading the groups, showing students that they also go through the same issues, and to form better relations with the students. Over 35 adults were there to accept the challenge themselves, from teachers and administrators to entrepreneurs and organizational leaders.
I’m the type of person who will talk all day about Marvel Comics, I’ll joke and have fun, but I won’t talk about 90 percent of what is going on in my mind. I promised myself I would engage myself in the event, listen, and offer support, but I knew I wouldn’t do much sharing.
I was wrong.
I was wrong about the event as a whole and I was wrong about not sharing my own life.
The day began with activities designed to wake everyone up and get the challengers more comfortable with one another. Games were held to acquaint one another in very interesting ways, such as backwards dancing. In one of the events, adults were asked to assist students in a sport. The adults were then asked to design and act out a “half-time show” in 30 seconds. I might or might not have shamelessly joined a can-can chorus line to win a game.
The day then moved onto a more serious matter, when all participants were sorted into groups of four students to two adults.
I looked at my group and I didn’t expect anyone in it to say anything serious, especially after all of the fun we had just had, but the first student took off and talked about some issues that had plagued him since childhood and it went off from there.
The rules were simple. Take two minute turns in a circle, talking about anything you’d like on the topic of “if you really knew me.” No one else could talk during another person’s turn and then the group was given a few seconds to console the challenger through hugs, pats on the back, or comforting words, before moving onto the next person. Everyone in my group went, including myself.
Throughout the exercise, a room of nearly 200 people was filled with tears and the soft sounds of crying, as challengers whispered secrets that they would normally never utter to another person, let alone someone who isn’t even considered a friend.
The event then evolved onto a similar project, but on a larger scale that involved the whole room. A line was placed across the floor and the leaders began to ask questions. If someone had experienced what was mentioned, they were asked to cross the line.
The leaders asked the women if they had ever experienced abuse, in which many crossed. The men were asked if they were every put under pressure to be a strong man, nearly the whole group crossed. Drugs and alcohol had many people crossing over. Topics of self-harm and suicide had an astonishing number cross over. The game went on and on, covering many deep subjects.
The leaders brought up many of the issues that we are taught to internalize and keep to ourselves, only to break down those barriers and show just how many people are affected by these issues.
I learned a lot in this experience and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity. The experience was easily the most impactful and most powerful one I have ever experienced and I would gladly do it again. I was astonished to see how many of these students were afflicted by so much that I internalized myself.
I am also unashamed to admit that I spent half of the day in tears, watching so many young people crossing the line, crying, when asked if they had ever experienced abuse, bullying, had experienced self-harm notions, and so on.
The day ended and the change was visible. The morning began with the challengers finding it awkward to go around and collect a set amount of high fives to freely hugging everyone and feeling closer than ever.
I now see what holds the Jeep family together, which is the devotion and love that the community and school has for one another.
The Challenge Day is held by an organization based out of California. They can be booked for Challenge Days through their website at www.challengeday.org. I cannot express just how powerful of an experience this is through words alone and encourage those to look into hosting one of their own. I applaud South Webster for hosting this event and I challenge every school to look into the organization and consider booking them for an event. Not only will it bring the students and community closer together, but it could possibly save a young life.
Reach Joseph Pratt at 740-353-3101, ext. 1932, or by Twitter @JosephPratt03.