Rachel’s Challenge Program Fostering Kindness in Herkimer County Schools

CickToWatchVideoFRANKFORT – Sixteen-year-old Kali Fennimore was the new kid again. Frankfort-Schuyler High School would be Kali’s third new school. She had already prepared herself to face the old feelings and experiences of being the new kid. Isolation. Loneliness. Sadness.

Kali walked into the Frankfort-Schuyler High School office in October. Tino Laterza, a sophomore, greeted her with a wide smile. Tino’s friendliness surprised Kali. He showed Kali all the ins and outs of the high school. Tino introduced his friends to Kali. They showed the same warmth and friendliness. For the first time as a new kid, Kali didn’t have to eat lunch alone.

Kali wasn’t alone, and she wasn’t lonely.

“I was very surprised,” Kali remembered. “That never happened at my other school.”

Student empowerment

Admittedly, it may not have happened at Frankfort if the school hadn’t recently made efforts to bring Rachel’s Challenge to its school.

The national program, funded in Herkimer County schools by The Community Foundation of Herkimer & Oneida Counties, Inc., is a series of student empowering programs and strategies that equip students and adults to combat bullying and allay feelings of isolation and despair by creating a culture of kindness and compassion. The programs are based on the writings and life of 17-year-old Rachel Scott who was the first student killed during the Columbine High School shootings in 1999.

The Community Foundation invested $10,000 into Herkimer County schools to bring Rachel’s Challenge to 12 Herkimer BOCES school districts. Twenty-three Rachel’s Challenge presentations took place in the schools, including 12 student assembly presentations, five Friends of Rachel student training sessions and six evening parent and community events. More than 4,500 students attended these emotional, thought-provoking presentations where Rachel’s message of kindness and compassion was delivered.

“Before Rachel’s Challenge, honestly, it wouldn’t have been the first thing in my mind,” said Tino about welcoming the new kid to his school.

A chain reaction

Putting kindness, compassion and acceptance at the forefront of students’ minds through Friends of Rachel Club at Frankfort middle and high schools has truly made a difference. The club started with a school-wide multimedia presentation where students learned how to create a chain reaction of kindness. It continued with select students going through intense small group workshops. Those workshops involved a facilitator who made students face each other, their hurts, their pain, but most of all their likeness.

“We learned that we all have the same pain and the same hurt and problems,” said Taryn Rackmyer, who attended the workshop. “It’s about giving people chances now and instead of seeing someone and having a judgment, stop and get to know them.”

A chain reaction truly has begun, and for 12-year-old Jacob Shortt the impact has been simple but powerful.

“I look forward to school now, because everyone is saying hi, doing hi-fives on hi-five Friday, people who didn’t know each other are getting to know each other,” Jacob said.

Each club meeting attracts about 100 students – 20 percent of the 600-student population, said Shelley Ceglia, a club advisor and music teacher.

“The people who come to the meetings and who are working the program tend to have less drama, they’re more aware of the way they’re interacting with their peers and are learning the skills that help them in difficult situations,” she said.

Students really are seeking that help, said Joe Juliano, who brought the idea of Rachel’s Challenge to the school after attending a leadership retreat.

“It is better than before,” Joe said. “It’s not perfect, but it’s a better place and we work out the small problems so they don’t turn into big problems. I think Rachel (Scott) would be proud.”

Check out what the students are saying about Rachel’s Challenge via video.