Challenge Day Experience Brings Brady Family Together
“They were going to make us cry.”
That was one of the only things that Brady Middle School seventh graders had heard going in to Challenge Day 2012.
Tears? Yes. But what the participants truly gained through the course of the seven hours that transpired from the time they entered the new Brady gymnasium until the time they left was the realization of the power each student wields to affect change and make a difference.
“It meant a lot; it changed me as a person,” said seventh grader Terrell Spencer. “It actually let me express my feelings. Things are going to be different because we came together as a family.”
Twins Allie and Dana Weltman are used to experiencing things together. But each one had her own expectations going in:
“Being a twin I see things from every perspective and it’s so weird. It’s like ‘how could you not see or think that’?!” Allie said before the events of Challenge Day. “The most difficult thing about being in middle school is getting good grades and making and keeping friends with the biggest issue being knowing what to and not to say.”
“The biggest issue facing my peers is that everyone is changing and making new friends, so they won’t be other people’s friends (anymore),” added Dana. “I am pretty excited about Challenge Day because I know it will be a great experience but I don’t really know what is going to happen or what we will do.”
They soon found out.
The day began as adult facilitators enthusiastically welcomed the students into the gymnasium through a human tunnel. Through the course of the day, students and adults engaged in getting-to-know-you games, thought-provoking and often emotional discussions, and a great deal of hugging and positive encouragement in a safe environment.
“It really helps students experience something differently than any other program,” said Principal Brian Frank who brought the PTA- and Orange Foundation-sponsored program back to BMS for the second year in a row. “It’s got an emotional piece to it that gets kids’ attention moreso than just having a speaker come in and talk to them for an hour. This really helps build that sense of camaraderie; that idea that there are others who may have experienced the same things. Because of that commonality they can connect at a different level than they have been able to do in the past.”
Challenge Day, more commonly known to MTV fans as “If You Really Knew Me…”, is based in Concord, California. With bullying incidents on the rise nationwide and students constantly facing barrages of criticism, many of them are setting up walls within their comfort zones and not allowing others in…or themselves out. Challenge Day seeks to break down those walls.
“We walk around not really sharing what we really feel, what we really think or who we really are, and we start to feel what we call at Challenge Day, ‘terminally unique’,” said Challenge Day Program Leader Tony Lowe. “We feel nobody could understand us; nobody gets us; and it’s killing us. At Challenge Day we find out we actually have a lot in common, especially the things we don’t talk about.”
Lowe was one of two leaders brought in from the national headquarters for the two-day event. The seventh grade was divided into two sections by Prides and joined by eighth graders who were new to the District this year as well as 8th and 9th grade volunteers who served as student facilitators. But it was not only students who were asked to step out of their comfort zones. Adult facilitators comprised about a quarter of the group.
Guidance Counselor Sarah DiBenedetto was one of the coordinators of this year’s program.
“For me, the day is a day our students get to see the adults in this District in a completely different way,” she said. “I think our adults gain a greater respect for being an adolescent and our students have an opportunity to see that they have some things in common with the adults.”
Facilitator and Bus Driver Shannon Gross experienced Challenge Day for the first time this year and said she was surprised at how emotional it was as she got to know how many things the students and adults experience together.
“I think it opens the kids’ eyes as well as the adults as far as how to treat one another. Maybe you don’t think that anybody else is going through or experienced what you have gone through and then you turn around and see that yes, they have indeed. And it’s always good to have a shoulder to cry on.”
Facilitators were each placed into “families” comprised of four to five students. Throughout the day, these support groups sat in a circle, knee to knee, often with arms outstretched around each other or with hands clasped in strength. Each participant had a chance to speak, without interruption. With only the safety net of their new family members’ willingness to not only listen, but to hear, students and adults alike completed the thought, “If you really knew me…”.
“No one can prepare you for the emotions you feel on Challenge Day,” said first time facilitator and alumni parent Leslie Brown ‘86. “The seventh graders were incredibly open and giving, and I am proud to call them my son’s classmates. Their bravery and honesty were touching and heart-wrenching. I commend them for opening up and giving their all to this unforgettable program.”
The most intense time came during a challenge requiring students and adults to be completely honest and face their issues, and perhaps demons, squarely in the eye. All participants stood on one side of a blue line and were told to cross to the other side of the aisle if they had experienced a certain incident or issue announced by the leader. These serious topics ranged from personal suffering to witnessing or being subjected to bullying; from being critical of others to living through a number of close personal tragedies including alcoholism and even the deaths of loved ones.
In silence, with only soft music playing in the background, participants crossed the line where they were welcomed and encouraged by non-judgmental, loving friends on both sides of the aisle. Their honesty was rewarded with signs of “I love you” pouring out from those who watched their new friends cross over.
For their willingness to share the experiences of the most personal moments in their lives with those in the room, students and adults alike were deemed “survivors”.
“It was emotional to think about the categories you fit in and how you can relate to everyone else,” said seventh grader D’Atra Hill. “It was really like opening up your life to everyone. I know I will look at life differently now. I will keep my head up and be positive.”
For both Allie and Dana, the “Cross the Line” activity resulted in some of the most poignant moments of the day.
“I’m very glad I did it,” Allie said. “It helped me fix my point of view on life and on other people. I feel like I can better relate to and understand the things that people have been through and are going on now….I can now stop and think, what might this person have been through? How can I help? How can I stop bad things from happening? I think people will treat everyone else differently, and I’ll treat other people differently. It changes your perspective on everything.”
“I think that now that we have gone through Challenge Day, my grade will be kinder, reach out to more people and make new friends,” Dana said. “I learned that even though I might fight with my family members sometimes, I am very lucky because I don’t have horrible issues that some people have (to deal with).”
Teacher John Marcelino, who experienced Challenge Day for the second year in a row, noted that “without a doubt it makes a difference.” But he added that follow-up after Challenge Day through the Pride program and further programming and discussions will make the change stick.
“I do see them trying to be more supportive; I do see less bullying; but as the days go on, that starts to wane; they need to have more continued reinforcement. But it’s a great thing. It’s a good start.”
“The bottom line is the school will be different when the students decide that it will be different, and I think that’s the message,” said Principal Frank, who also participated as a facilitator. “That feeling they felt as they were walking out – if they can remember that and it can help guide them as they make decisions in the future, I think that will truly make the difference.”
Before the close of the day’s events, each participant was asked to write a letter to someone who had touched his/her life in a special way and then given the opportunity to read the letter aloud. Some students wrote to grandparents or family members who had passed away; others wrote to classmates whom they felt they had betrayed or felt especially close to; and others kept their own letters close to their hearts.
The feelings of tolerance and understanding were pervasive; and as the music played and the students left the gym, damp tissues dotted the floor; embraces were commonplace; and, behind the tears, were smiles of compassion.
“I think Brady will change and change for the better,” said seventh grader Jillian Leb. “Students will be more compassionate, and it will change people’s lives and how they look at each other and act toward each other.”
Classmate Robert Beard agreed.
“I think everybody will change. I think things will get better and people will be nicer to each other.”
“I loved it,” effused seventh grader Olivia Hersh as she donned her backpack to head home for the day. “I think it’s kind of a wake-up call to everyone who has been bullying or has been mistreating people because they realized stuff about people they didn’t realize before. I think this will really be inspirational to everyone.”
To view the slideshows from the two-day event, click on the photos below: