News Feature

Deer Isle
Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, September 7, 2023
Rachel’s challenge coming to Island schools
Nonprofit to do assemblies on positivity and kindness

by Will Robinson

On September 12 and 13, students from both Deer Isle-Stonington schools will participate in a program focusing on the power of kindness and compassion.

Elementary School Nurse Christine Saunders, who organized the event, said she noticed more students coming in with mental health concerns last year.

“There were students coming in that were just having hard days emotionally,” she said.

In searching for a way to help, Saunders found the nonprofit Rachel’s Challenge, which offers a variety of programs to improve students’ social and emotional health. After reaching out to the organization, Saunders felt it could make a difference for Island students.

“It’s a really great way to start the year on the right foot,” she said.

What is Rachel’s Challenge?

According to a fact sheet provided to Saunders, Rachel’s Challenge is a 501(c)(3) organization that “exists to equip and inspire individuals to replace acts of violence, bullying, and negativity with acts of respect, kindness, and compassion.”

The nonprofit’s name comes from the writings of Rachel Joy Scott, the first victim of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado. In her last essay, the organization’s website notes that Scott challenged readers to “start a chain reaction” with kindness.

Scott’s parents started the nonprofit in 2001, using their daughter’s philosophy of kindness and compassion as the basis for its programs. Now, Rachel’s Challenge holds events in schools that experience bullying, student isolation, teen suicide, discrimination, school violence and increased disciplinary actions.

According to the fact sheet, the organization has helped prevent at least eight school shootings and stopped hundreds of suicides with its philosophy.

“There is no ‘one quick fix,’ but this is a new year with a lot of positive energy. I think it’s great to kick things off like this,” Saunders said.

What will they do?

According to Saunders, speakers from Rachel’s Challenge will hold a series of assemblies, each tailored to a specific age group and emotional maturity level.

On September 13, the organization will share an hour-long presentation with students in grades K through 4, then another for Grades 5 and 6. Grades 7 through 12 will meet for a longer presentation.

In addition to the assemblies, Saunders said Rachel’s Challenge will also hold a series of hands-on exercises, first for the fifth through eighth graders, then the high school students. The work will focus on specific issues raised by students, giving them social and emotional “tools” to take back to the classroom and at home.

“I feel like kids in the middle and high school, they really want to connect. They want to find that connection and feel that connection. All these kids, they are so open-minded; they just need the tools,” Saunders said.

Rachel’s Challenge will also provide teachers with resources and exercises to help continue the work after the presenters have left.

After the sessions are held with students, a similar talk will be offered for parents. At 5 p.m. on Tuesday, September 12, in the Reach Performing Arts Center, parents will have the opportunity to connect over refreshments and listen to a Rachel’s Challenge presentation.

Saunders said she felt parents were kept out of the school during the pandemic and that this program would be an opportunity to “get the ball rolling on having parents involved in the school.”

Refreshments will be served from 5 to 6 p.m., and the presentation will run from 6 to 7 p.m. Students are invited to come with their parents; though, due to the content of the talk, it is requested that only students in Grades 6 and above attend.

The cost of the event, about $7,000, was completely covered by a grant from the Island Health and Wellness Foundation.