Challenge Day makes powerful, positive impact on student life at Midland schools

There’s a perceptible change in the culture at Midland’s Northeast Middle School and Bullock Creek High School ever since they hosted Challenge Day programs this fall.

“I think that the kids are more likely to call out a bully or report bullying. I think students have more empathy for each other too. They’re not so quick to judge,” says Kathy Romain, 7th grade math teacher at Northeast Middle School.

The schools were among seven in Midland County that participated in Challenge Day, a day-long program facilitated by the California-based nonprofit of the same name. The event promotes acceptance and compassion among students while combating isolation and bullying through interactive activities.

Several area schools including Jefferson Middle, Bullock Creek Middle, Meridian Junior High, Midland High and Meridian Early College High also participated. The Challenge Day was held over multiple days in October and November.

The programs were funded by a $50,000 grant from The Dow Chemical Company Foundation to the Midland Area Community Foundation, whose Violence Prevention Partnership determined that hosting a Challenge Day would make a positive impact on local middle and high schools. Grant dollars were spent on program fees, facilitator travel expenses, lunch for the events and for substitute teachers to cover those who spent the day at the program.

“We have hosted Challenge Day in this community before, but because of the Dow grant we were really able to make a significant impact with this many schools being able to participate,” says Melissa Kesterson, program officer at Midland Area Community Foundation.

Staff at Northeast Middle School and Bullock Creek High School said they wouldn’t have been able to afford the program if it weren’t for the grant. Dow also provided grants to both Saginaw and Bay counties with the goal of combating violence and bullying.

The program, typically held in school gyms, is limited to 100 students, so staff at the schools selected a cross-section of students for roles including potential bullies, leaders, bystanders and others who would benefit from the program, Romain said.

The students joined teachers and staff in team building and leadership exercises in both small and large groups. During one activity called ‘cross the line,’ participants were asked to walk across a line on the floor if they had experienced certain things, such as if they’d ever been physically or sexually abused, or if someone close to them had been incarcerated or died by suicide.

Students who crossed the line would look around and realize they weren’t alone, while those who stayed gained a newfound understanding that there’s more going on under the surface than they realize, said Jennifer Brown, a counselor at Bullock Creek High School. While students weren’t required to participate, most of them did.

“There are students who are really struggling in our schools, and they had no idea that this kid that they’ve been sitting next to in classes since kindergarten, his dad has been in and out of prison, or somebody’s mom died from cancer when they were in 7th grade,” says Brown. “Those are the things that I think are really eye opening to know that there’s a lot more going on.”

She said it was ‘amazing’ that in about six hours, the facilitators were able to help the students and adults gel as a group and gain each other’s trust. The day got uncomfortable at times, and there were tears and some sadness, she said.

“But I think students find value in it,” Brown said. “It bridges the gaps between enemies and bullies.”

She said since the program ended, she’s noticed that students who wouldn’t normally reach out to others are communicating more. Romain had a similar experience at her school. Both teachers said they received positive feedback from students.

Romain noted that participants really bonded and afterward it felt like there had been a climate shift in the building. School staff members who participated were floored at the power of the program.

“Now when I pass students in the hall, they’ll greet me with big, genuine smiles and share the “I love you” hand sign as a way of saying “I got your back; I support you,” says Romain. The hand signal is used throughout the Challenge Day program as a sign of respect, according to the organization.

“I feel more connected to them,” she says. “So, I think that they would feel safe to come and tell me something. If they needed help, I think that they would feel safe to go up to somebody that was there and ask for help, where before they may not know where to go.”

Both Romain and Brown said they’d love to bring the program back more often so more students can have the chance to take part in it. Bullock Creek High School has hosted the event two other times; it used various grant funding for the first two years.

Although not all students got to participate, Brown said the event is having a positive impact on more than just those who went to the Challenge Day. That’s because participants are going back to their classrooms, school hallways and sporting events and sharing what they learned through their actions and attitudes, she said. She’s seen a significant shift in how people treat each other.

Challenge Day started 30 years ago by a couple who worked in teen crisis prevention and intervention. They sought to foster compassion and empathy among young people as a way to address isolation and loneliness, which they said can often be underlying problems that lead to bullying, violence, truancy, substance abuse, eating disorders and suicide.

“Challenge Day improves social and emotional health, thereby reducing behavioral problems and increasing academic outcomes,” according to the Challenge Day website.

Since the first Challenge Day was held in 1987, more than 1.5 million youth and adults have participated in events in the United States and across 10 other countries. About 2,500 schools have participated, as well as many communities and businesses.

According to the organization’s surveys of its youth participants, most say they are more understanding and accepting of other students, more likely to help others, more comfortable listening to others, more aware of the effects of bullying and teasing and more likely to speak up when someone is mistreated after having gone through the program.

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