Middle school can feel like a battle ground, where small armies are divided by their likes and dislikes, musical tastes, sports played (or not played), and even school grades.
And as in all wars, the weapons of choice can deal nasty blows. Whether it’s in the form of hurtful words, physical attacks, or even shunning someone from a group, all can scar a young person for life.
But this week, hundreds of middle schoolers were invited to participate in Challenge Day, a game-changer that focuses on teaching empathy. Challenge Day leaders travel around the world, involving students in a full day of activities and discussion that “go beyond traditional anti-bullying efforts, building empathy and igniting a movement of compassion and positive change, known as the Be the Change movement.”
And at the very beginning of the event, held at the Landing Sports Centre and involving select students from all middle schools, the kids were given a new tool for their battleground; they were taught the American Sign Language sign for love.
“We want you to have an open mind and open heart today,” said leader Michelle Arias, showing them how to extend only their thumb, forefinger and pinky and hold their hand in the air.
It’s not just a sign for love, Arias said, but to show speakers through the day that you respect them, and honour what they’re saying.
Both Arias and co-leader Chris Heinze shared their own stories of being unhappy as a teenager, and how they eventually came out of their shells to be true to themselves.
For Heinze, it meant stepping out of his older brother’s shadow, cast across the high school football field, to join a dance class. It was difficult, and he could have lived a lie and been comfortable, he said. But life is so much better out of that comfort zone.
For both leaders, their experiences led them to becoming leaders, and that is their hope for the kids they speak to.
“Everyone in this room has the power to create a life for yourself,” Heinze said.
The Progress was invited to attend the opening session, a high-energy, captivating, youthful hour of high fives, low fives, dance offs, games and cheering. However, the real work was done out of the eye of the media, in strict confidence, with the idea that the kids would open up to each other, learn from each other, and emerge with a plan to “be the change.” Among the 100 or so kids were about a dozen adult leaders, including social workers and teachers, and representatives from service organizations.
“I don’t know what it’s like for you to go to school every day,” Arias said to the crowd, gathered around her in a circle. “I don’t know what it’s like for you to go to home.”
But Challenge Day, she told them, is a day to “give everyone space to be who they are.”
So, it doesn’t matter that someone wears different clothes, or doesn’t like the same things.
“This is a day to break down those walls,” she said.
By then end of the day, when media was allowed back, those walls had been broken down. The kids who had stuck like glue to their best friends, or who sat silently trying to be invisible, were smiling with their new friends, sharing personal stories over a microphone, and celebrating each other’s strengths.
They had stripped away those middle school labels, at least for the day, forging some new, powerful friendships.
The test now, Arias and Heinze told them, is to take what they’ve learned, choose to do things differently, and step out of their comfort zones.
For some, that could mean forgiveness and letting go. For others, it could mean apologizing for bad behavior. For everyone, it will mean speaking up when someone is being treated badly. While it’s not likely to stop every bully in their tracks, it makes the army fighting back a lot more resilient — 450 kids attended the sessions over the course of four days.
The total cost of bringing the event to Chilliwack was $25,000, through sponsorships from several community organizations. The effort to bring the presentation to Chilliwack was spearheaded by Chilliwack Society for Community Living.
To learn more about Challenge Day, visit www.challengeday.org.