Students take action to be the change
Trenton McIntyre walked out of Evergreen Hall on Thursday afternoon with a mission.
The Grade 11 Sardis secondary student, who had just spent six hours participating in Challenge Day, was determined to get rid of the bullying, teasing, negative judgements, gossip and rumours at his school.
He knew it had to start with him.
"Before this experience, there was this guy I didn't like, I didn't know why I didn't like him, I just didn't like him," admitted McIntyre. "Challenge Day helped me realize this entire time I was being ignorant. How could I not like him when I didn't even know him?"
Challenge Day is a program that was developed by Rich and Yvonne Dutra-St. John of California in 1987. Its mission is for every child to live in a world where they feel safe, loved and celebrated.
Sardis secondary teacher Parween Irani felt she had to do something for students in Chilliwack after hearing some of the heartbreaking stories her students had confided in her.
"Clearly these students are searching for someone to listen to them, but are often reluctant to seek the help of a counsellor," said Irani.
"They feel very alone."
Students today face social injustices not only at school but online and in the community. Every day they're challenged with cliques, gossip, rumours, teasing, harassment, isolation, stereotypes, intolerance, racism, sexism, violence, homophobia, hopelessness, apathy, pressures of fitting in, and so much more.
Research shows today's student population feels more alone than any other population preceding it – despite the advances in online social networking.
Challenge Day is working to change that.
"The program's aim is to break down the barriers between students and foster positive peer pressure," said Irani.
On Thursday morning, 100 students in Grades 8 to 12 from several schools in the district gathered at Evergreen Hall. They each came with a variety of backgrounds and issues, and many were selected to participate specifically because they were the "leaders" of a clique in their school.
The day started off with high-energy, get-to-know-each-other activities.
In a circle formed by chairs – "the laboratory of love" – the students, along with 35 adult facilitators, danced, linked arms, jumped up and down, delivered repeated high fives, giggled and laughed. They met new people, and for the first time really got to know the people behind the faces they'd seen, known and maybe even judged for years.
"Everyone in this room has the power and can use that power to create the school of your dreams," said workshop leader Jyoti Subramanian. "If we don't take action in our life, nothing is going to change."
As the day progressed, many of the students let their guards down and opened up.
An imaginary line was created, where participants were instructed to cross if their answer to a specific question was affirmative. The questions started out fairly neutral:
Have you ever been teased?
Have you ever been bullied because of your size?
For every question that was asked, the next became more intense:
Have you ever lived with violence?
Have you ever lost somebody to violence?
Have you ever been abused?
"These were really hard questions that the kids had to admit to," said facilitator Carey-Jane Kerkhoff, a UFV practicum student with Chilliwack Addictions and Preventions.
"I was surprised at how many kids crossed the line. It makes you think about the kids, if they're not safe at home or at school, where do they go?
"I think Challenge Day let these kids know they are not alone. When they crossed the line, they were never the only one crossing."
Following the event, many students committed to make an effort of really getting to know their peers and to not impulsively judge them on their exterior image.
Trenton McIntyre is determined to dissolve the cliques.
"I see a lot of cliques at my school, and I know a lot of the people in the different groups, so I think I'm just going to start hanging out with them all," he said. "And hopefully I'll make people understand that hating without really knowing a person isn't right."