Challenge Day encourages Tahoe-Truckee students by building empathy | SierraSun.com

Challenge Day encourages Tahoe-Truckee students by building empathy

Jessica Weaver
Special to the Sun

TAHOE CITY, Calif. — When I walked into the gym at North Tahoe High School a couple of weeks ago, I wasn't quite sure what to expect.

I had volunteered to participate in "Challenge Day," a one-day program that ninth grade students at both Truckee High School and North Tahoe High School have participated in over the past several years.

Although I had a rough idea of what the intention of the day was, I had no idea how it would go, what the students would think of it, or what impact it might have on them — or me.

I had been told that the school district needed more adult volunteers in order to be able to offer the program to the students this year (they need one adult volunteer for every four to five kids), and as an Excellence in Education Foundation board member, I'd heard that the program was incredibly worthwhile.

To offer a bit of background, the Challenge Day Program was created to build connection and empathy, and to fulfill the vision that every child lives in a world where they feel safe, loved, and celebrated. The program goes beyond traditional anti-bullying efforts, building empathy and igniting a movement of compassion and positive change.

From what I'd gathered from others more familiar with Challenge Day, in previous years, the program had helped lead students down a path of self-discovery and community building.

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It helped reduce teasing and bullying, and provided the students with tools for peaceful conflict resolution. Challenge Day was also an opportunity for students to learn how to express emotions in a healthy way, and ignite a movement of compassion and positive change.

It was something that as a board, we'd funded — and expanded funding for.

Not knowing what to expect over the course of the day, I was probably almost as nervous as the students when they walked in the door that morning. That changed almost instantly.

Chris and NeEddra, the incredible Challenge Day leaders who guided the activities and conversations of the day were phenomenal. They were relatable, shared about who they were, and quickly made the students feel comfortable talking not only with them, but sharing with each other.

During this interactive one-day program, students (and the adult volunteers) were encouraged to step out of their comfort zones through music, games and small group activities.

We all learned to recognize stereotypes and labels that exist. Through various large and small group exercises, Challenge Day leaders encouraged the students (as well as those of us who were volunteers) to get to know one another.

Conversations guided by the Challenge Day leaders addressed some common issues seen at most schools including cliques, gossip, rumors, negative judgments, teasing, harassment, isolation, stereotypes, intolerance, racism, sexism, bullying, violence, homophobia, hopelessness, apathy, and hidden pressures to create an image, achieve or live up to the expectations of others.

Throughout the day, it was incredible to watch students reach out and connect with peers they may not have before, and be encouraged to celebrate the diversity of others.

There truly was an appreciation and understanding in the room for the experiences others have had, as well as the importance of being able to "drop the waterline" to share and express their true selves instead of hiding who they are to fit in at school or in the community.

At the end of the program, those who fully participated were encouraged to celebrate the diversity of all people, create positive change, and have the tools to exhibit healthy self-expression.

They were encouraged to let go of self-limiting thoughts, and demonstrate a new level of self-confidence that comes with the belief that they have the ability to do anything they put their mind to.

I left the gym that day feeling incredibly proud of the inspiring, brave, smart young people I'd met, and with a feeling of gratitude for the educators at the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District who have worked so hard year after year to make such a powerful program available to our students.

To learn more about "Challenge Day," visit http://www.challengeday.org.

Jessica Weaver is an Excellence in Education Board Member. The Excellence in Education Foundation board has granted more than $30,000 in support of character development programs, including Challenge Day, in the past year for students within the Truckee Tahoe Unified School District. Visit http://www.exined.org to learn more.