FORT MILL — Anyone who’s ever sat with a group of middle school students would probably say it’s difficult to get them all to sit still and listen quietly for more than a few minutes at a time. But on Monday morning, at Fort Mill Middle School, a gym full of students didn’t make a peep for over an hour, save for the sound of occasional sniffling from tears.
The students were listening to Michael Dorsey, a speaker with “Rachel’s Challenge,” a program based in Littleton, Col., designed to “spread the chain reaction of kindness and compassion that Rachel dreamed of,” according to Dorsey.
The Rachel he’s referring to is Rachel Joy Scott, who was the first victim of the Columbine High School shooting on April 20, 1999. Since her sudden and violent death at age 17, Rachel’s family has made it their mission to spread Rachel’s commitment to acceptance and love of all people around the world.
Dorsey and others like him go to schools across the country to tell Rachel’s story and encourage students to accept the challenge.
The programs, one for sixth and seventh graders, one for eighth graders and another evening presentation for community members, consisted of a series of video clips and images. The most emotional moments came when Dorsey played security footage and 911 calls from inside Columbine High School as students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold entered classrooms with guns and opened fire on students and teachers. There was also news footage outside the school and in the community as families reunited with the students who had survived and waited in anguish to see if their students had not.
Teachers and students also cried as a tribute to Rachel played, with footage of a smiling toddler juxtaposed with an image of her mother leaning her forehead on Rachel’s casket, which was covered with messages of love from her family and friends.
Dorsey told the students about Rachel’s kindness and how she would reach out to anyone she felt needed a friend or a little help and shared with the students the five goals that make up the larger challenge.
“You never know the power of kindness and compassion,” he told the students.
Rachel, by all accounts from her friends, family and teachers, was committed to making the world a better place. She kept multiple diaries throughout her life where she shared her thoughts about how people should treat others and how to create a more accepting world. Dorsey shared many of those entries with the students at Fort Mill Middle School.
“I thought the presentation was really nice,” said Josiah Waldo, 14.
Josiah and his friends were signing the Rachel’s Challenge banner during their lunchtime, pledging to take the challenge.
“It just helps a lot of kids that get picked on and people that don’t get treated the way they should,” he said.
The person responsible for bringing Rachel’s Challenge to Fort Mill Middle School is Kim Beels, the eighth grade special education teacher.
Middle schoolers often need help when it comes to their behavior, she said, and when they found this program, she thought it would be perfect for their school.
“I think it’s going to be a change for the good,” Beels said.
Rachel’s Challenge doesn’t end with just one day of programming, she said. About 100 students and 10 teachers will be part of the Friends of Rachel Club, or FOR Club, where they will receive special training in carrying out Rachel’s Challenge and how to identify and reach out to students who might need a little extra kindness.
“We want the chain reaction to begin,” she said, referencing Rachel’s call for a “chain reaction of kindness.”
For students Carter Richardson and Laura Manning, both 13, this was the first time they’d ever heard of Rachel Scott or even heard much about the Columbine shooting. They weren’t even alive when the shooting occurred.
“It was really moving,” Carter said. “It makes me want to go do something right now.”
Laura said she hopes her fellow classmates will learn to be more sensitive and loving towards one another.
It doesn’t matter if students know anything about Columbine or Rachel before the presentation, Dorsey said.
“The message transcends culture,” he said. “It was prolific then and it’s prolific now,” he said.
While many see Rachel’s Challenge as simply an anti-bullying campaign, Dorsey said it’s more than just that.
“Don’t harp on the problem [of bullying],” he said. “Find a solution.”