Queen Creek High School begins program focused on spreading positivity

Above are Juanitta Bekoe, secretary; Diana Quintero, vice president; Savannah Morales, president; Sabrina Harding, historian; and Weston Banning, treasurer. (Arianna Grainey/Independent Newsmedia)

When she was 13, a Colorado teenager drew the outline of her hands on the back her dresser and wrote, “These hands belong to Rachel Joy Scott and will someday touch millions of people’s hearts.”

A few years later, Rachel was the first victim of the Columbine school shootings in 1999, and now her hands and messages of kindness are touching students at Queen Creek High School.

Local students are taking the Rachel’s Challenge, a nonprofit created by Rachel’s family to help equip and empower individuals to replace acts of violence, bullying and negativity with acts of respect, kindness and compassion.

The program is based on Rachel’s writings and philosophy, according to the Rachel’s Challenge website, rachelschallenge.org.

“If one person will go out of their way to show compassion, then it will start a chain reaction of the same. People will never know how far a little kindness can go,” she wrote in an essay a month before the shootings.

In her diary, she talked about the three groups she wanted to touch.

“I want to reach out to those with special needs because they are often overlooked. I want to reach out to those who are new in school because they don’t have any friends yet. And I want to reach out to those who are picked on or put down by others,” she wrote.

The program directs students to take the following five challenges based on Rachel’s life:

  • Look for the best in people and give three chances to do so.
  • Dream big, write your goals on paper and journal the progress.
  • Choose positive influences and be surrounded by them.
  • Speak with kindness because words can hurt or heal.
  • Start a chain reaction by telling someone you love them.

Jennifer Ray, assistant principal at Queen Creek High School, said the nonprofit offers different activities for middle and high schools. She said she hopes the program will help students feel they belong and are accepted.

“We definitely want to create a community where students feel safe, loved and cared for by not only the staff, but also by their fellow students,” Ms. Ray said during an interview. “We want them to feel happy and engaged. We want those small acts of kindness to happen daily.”

Programs within Rachel’s Challenge are intended to aid school administrators and students in their efforts to deal with a variety of negative behaviors that are on the rise nationally.

According to the Rachel’s Challenge website, more than 160,000 students nationwide skip school daily for fear of being bullied.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported suicide was the third-leading cause of death of children ages 10-14 in the U.S. and the second-leading cause of death for ages 15-34 in 2016.

In addition, more school shootings have occurred across the country since Columbine. The most recent of these took place in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 students and school staff were killed.

Locally, there has been a rise in student suicides in the East Valley, including at Queen Creek High School.

Lee Harmon, a counselor at Queen Creek High School, said anxiety is common among students, as are problems with classmates, teachers, grades and social media. He said the number of incidents in which students reported problems with bullying has not increased over the past few years, saying it’s an issue most high schools face.

Senior Savanah Morales is optimistic Rachel’s Challenge can produce positive changes at school.

“This is my fourth year at Queen Creek High School, and there have been a lot of devastating events that have changed the whole atmosphere of the school,” Savannah said during an interview. “People who committed suicide were very well-liked at school. They had so many friends. It really broke our hearts. Nobody was talking or laughing. Nothing could change it.

“Something like Rachel’s Challenge can really create a chain reaction of kindness here and touch the hearts of those who really need it,” Savannah continued. “I like the challenge because Rachel said her hands were going to change the world someday. We want to have our hands change the atmosphere at our school and bring light to positivity.”

Students were introduced to the program during two 60-minute assemblies held July 26. About 70 students and 15 staff members attended a training meeting on Aug. 8 to learn how to organize the Friends of Rachel Club. The student-led group is organizing and will facilitate activities related to Rachel’s Challenge, Ms. Ray said.

“The club is completely student-run, but staff-supported,” Ms. Ray said. “The kids have to own it. (At the Aug. 8 meeting,) they broke into groups and brainstormed ideas about what would be good to do this year.”

“The program is unique in that it is student-driven and empowers students to take action, form groups and work on projects together to spread positivity,” Mr. Harmon said.

During an organizational meeting Aug. 13, Savannah was elected club president. She oversees the club’s 20 or so leaders – called commissioners, Mr. Harmon said – and about 80-100 other volunteer students, he said.

Alyssa Nunley, a QCHS senior, said the good vibes she felt from the students attending the Aug. 8 meeting inspired her to volunteer.

“The stories the Rachel’s Challenge representative touched me, and when we were sitting there, I noticed everyone had the same thing in common – they wanted to be loved. I realized everyone is the same. They deserved the same love and compassion,” Alyssa said during an interview.

She said she has never witnessed bullying at Queen Creek High School, but she can empathize with students who are being bullied because she was taunted when she was younger.

Alyssa said she was called names because she was overweight, dressed differently and was diagnosed with severe separation anxiety. Those experiences eventually gave her the strength to be herself and feel compassion toward others.

“You don’t realize what might be going on in someone else’s life,” she said. “You could say something innocent and not realize how it could impact somebody. You don’t know the trials and tribulations they’re going through.”

The 17-year-old said she is glad issues such as negative behaviors and the power of positivity are being addressed.

“This is something we should talk about more and spread awareness more,” Alyssa said. “We should keep an open mind and be more empathetic and open when meeting someone for the first time. Being kind could change someone’s day.”

Savannah said she has never been bullied. She said she has not witnessed any of her peers being bullied, but acknowledged the issue exists.

“We’re actually a school with good, caring people, but at this age everybody is experiencing growing pains; we’re trying to find out where we fit in this world,” she said.

She said that shared bond among students could make efforts by members of the Friends of Rachel Club more successful.

“Because of all the things we’ve been through, we were waiting for something bad to happen again. But this is not just some club. We’re showing we care about each other and want each other to be happy,” Savannah said.

Club members are meeting once a week to examine activities that have worked at other schools and determine which could be successful in Queen Creek. Savannah said their goal is to offer Rachel’s Challenge events on a weekly basis.

One such activity is to create Rachel’s Wall where students could leave their handprint like the organization’s namesake did when she was 13.

“These are the hands that will change the world, which is what Rachel said when she put her handprints on the back of her dresser,” Savannah said.

Members also want to maximize their impact by coordinating with other school groups such as the student council and Link Crew. The latter is a student-mentor program where juniors and seniors help freshmen feel welcomed and accepted.

One of the club members’ goals is to “create a generation that keeps the positive message going on and on,” Savannah said. “We want to leave a legacy of being kind.”

Editor’s note: Wendy Miller is a freelance journalist at the Queen Creek Independent.

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