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Students strive to live the 'Challenge'


Almont High School classmates share thoughts on stopping bullying


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Almont High School principal Rob Watt, students Travis Zelkowski, Paige Pierog, Julie Kline, Emily Fischer, Kevin Burrows and Billy Mulligan and school secretary Shelly Fasse vow to take Rachel’s Challenge into their everyday lives. photo by Catherine Minolli.

May 12, 2010
ALMONT — Kevin Burrows knows something has to change at school.

As president of the Almont High School senior class, he feels an undercurrent of negativity buzzing through the hallways. When he learns about bringing 'Rachel's Challenge' to the school, he's right on board with it.

"We need something positive going on here," Kevin says. "I've never had a (bullying) experience but students can see it, teachers can see it."

'Rachel's Challenge' is a widely acclaimed inspirational and motivational program aimed at inspiring students to be practice kindness.

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Developed by Rachel Scott's dad Darrell Scott, the program honors the life of Rachel, the first student killed in the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

Thirteen students and one teacher were gunned down by two male classmates—who'd allegedly been marginalized and bullied by others. Twenty-one other students were injured before the two shooters took their own lives.

Special education teacher and student advisor Colleen Ulmer had seen 'Rachel's Challenge' at a Rochester school, and decided it was something Almont students would benefit from. School secretary Shelly Fasse saw a need for some change, too, so she joined in the effort to bring Rachel's Challenge to Almont schools on April 26-27.

A week later, some students feel the challenge to start a chain reaction of kindness may help. Some hope it will. For one it's too late—she's transferring to another district next year because of relentless bullying behavior.

Kevin says Rachel's Challenge brought substance to student gatherings.

"We'd have homecoming or snowcoming assemblies, but there is nothing meaningful for the people around us to pass on," he says.

Kevin's proactive stance is shared by freshman Billy Mulligan. He, too, feels the negative undercurrent at school.

"We do have problems and I think it's good to acknowledge that before it's too late, and to try to change," he says.

Among those problems is silence.

"People won't stand up when they know something's wrong."

That lack of support may be what pushed Emily Fischer to seek another school next year.

Emily says she's been the subject of nasty rumors and steady bullying-type behavior and it's worn her down.

"It upsets me to have to switch schools because of it, but it's been horrible the past two years going through the effects of a lot of people saying things about me," she says.

It's the grapevine, the students say, which is small in a district their size. Everyone knows everyone, so newcomers are sometimes looked upon as "less than." Travis Zeklowski, a junior, knows all about that. When he first moved here a few years back, he was ignored by the football team he was a part of.

"The whole team exiled me until my friend Dylan stood up for me, saying 'hey this is how it's going to be, this guy's alright,'" Travis says.

Since then, things have been fine. In fact, most fellow students know who he is and that he's not easily intimidated.

"If they say something I just get back in their face," he grins.

Living the Challenge

Rachel's Challenge to start a chain reaction of kindness boils down to five ingredients:

•Treat others as you'd like to be treated;

•Dream big and believe in yourself;

•Appreciate everyone, mock no one;

•Practice "positive gossip" (say nice things about others);

•Forgive yourself and others.

These are easy steps, necessary steps, says junior Paige Pierog.

"This was much needed, I'm looking forward," Paige says. "It makes me think about every little thing, the way you treat people in general and how much it matters."

For Julie Kline, a sophomore, Rachel's Challenge is a lesson in strength.

"Rachel was different," Julie says. "Everyone has a purpose and she knew what her purpose was. She had a strong feeling on what she wanted to do and she did exactly what she had planned."

Billy says he's noticing people trying to be nicer to each other.

"It makes people realize what they're doing to other people," Billy says. "I hope they realize what they are doing and that it needs to stop."

Emily hopes the "positive gossip" pledge will take hold and prevent situations like her's from happening in the future.

"Words have an impact and people are being judged on stuff by people who don't even know the true person," she says.

Kevin says he's seen a turnaround already, that some of the negativity is dissipating and hopes it lasts. His mission is to carry Rachel's Challenge through the rest of his life.

"I want to be happy with what I say to people," Kevin says. "With every person you talk to, there's an imprint you leave."

Catherine Minolli is Managing Editor of the Tri-City Times. She began as a freelance writer with the Times in 1994. She enjoys the country life, including raising ducks and chickens.
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