Last week, every student at Mount Shasta High School was challenged to step out of their comfort zone, open their heart and build connections with others during Challenge Day.

Last week, every student at Mount Shasta High School was challenged to step out of their comfort zone, open their heart and build connections with others during Challenge Day.

They weren’t the only ones. Two weeks before, Weed High School students participated in Challenge Day, and between the two schools, more than 150 adult volunteers laughed and cried alongside them during the highly emotional program.

MSHS senior Hannah Crisci called the experience “life changing.”

“It’s good to know you’re not alone, and that others go through the same things as you do,” she said. “People you never thought would care were the most emotional and had the biggest changes.”

“It was really rewarding,” said Isaya Hughes, a sophomore at MSHS. Though he admitted he and most of his friends thought Challenge Day would be a big joke, afterward, he now has a different opinion.

“I?think it’ll make our school better and more calm.... people will probably think before they talk,” he said.

Challenge Day is a program designed to address some common issues seen at most schools, including cliques, gossip, negative judgments, teasing, stereotypes, bullying, violence, hopelessness and pressures to create an image or live up to the expectations of others. It encourages young adults to accept themselves completely for who they are and to practice acceptance of others.

“I’m in love with this program,” said Robin See-Swenson, a Marriage and Family Therapist who was instrumental in bringing Challenge Day to Siskiyou County. “It’s truly my dream that every student in the county get the chance experience it.”

To make her dream a reality, See-Swenson enlisted the help of the Communication Council, which is an extension of the MSHS Parent Group.

After more than a year of hard work, a $5,000 donation from the Herzog family, a $10,000 donation from Pepsi Refresh and many other contributions from individuals and organizations, every student at both MSHS and WHS has now experienced Challenge Day. Students from Jefferson and McCloud high schools were also brought in to participate, See-Swenson said.

What is Challenge Day?
Challenge Day is a six and half hour research-based program, See-Swenson explained. Students were broken into groups of about 100, and each day at least 25 adults participated alongside them.

Lead by two trained Challenge Day facilitators – Gina Pernini and Tony Lowe  – each day began with a series of games, activities and trust-building exercises designed to break down the walls of separation and create new levels of empathy and respect.  

The leaders then shared their own personal stories, and students were divided into small groups where they were each given two minutes to complete the sentence, “If you really knew me, you’d know...”

After opening up about themselves in a confidential  atmosphere and letting their peers spend two minutes in their shoes, many students expressed amazement and a new respect for their classmates.

Perhaps most emotional was the “cross the line” exercise. Students and adults lined up together on one side of the room. Pernini then asked various groups to cross the line – for example, those who have ever felt judged by the color of their skin, affected by alcohol or drug abuse in their homes or teased because someone thought they were too fat or too thin.

As people shuffled across the line, tears fell on either side with feelings of solidarity and empathy. Hands were held high in the American Sign Language symbol for love on both sides of the room.

“When people cross the line with you, you realize that you’ve had the same experiences,” said MSHS senior Katie Clute-Reinig. “Sometimes it’s people you wouldn’t expect.”

“Seeing others cross the line is an empowering moment,” said See-Swenson. “If it’s a successful adult from the community, it’s even better. It lets them see they’re going to be okay.”

At the close of the day, many students came forward to express their feelings to the entire group.

While several teens stood to thank a person who has been instrumental in their lives, others took the mic to offer a heartfelt apology to a classmate.

With an overflowing of tears and the sharing of hugs, participants emerged from Challenge Day exhausted and inspired.

“It really was life changing,” said Brad Reed, a MSHS junior. “You could actually feel everyone else’s emotions.”

“I feel like a different person,” said MSHS junior Andrew Paisley.

Reactions to Challenge Day
Feedback from students and community members has been “very positive,” said MSHS counselor Barbara Porteous. Every student was offered the chance to opt out, and only five or six chose to do so, she said.

For those students who had a particularly difficult time at Challenge Day, appropriate follow-up will be conducted, she emphasized.

“We want to make sure everyone gets the help or support they need,” Porteous said, “and we will do that.”

“Overall, I think there’s a lack of love, acceptance and trust in the lives of many,” said  parent participant Patricia Paisley. “In that room, I?think the children could feel that again – that love, acceptance and trust. They knew they weren’t alone and could open up and be themselves.”

“I think it was especially cool for our small community. It brought us together,” said MSHS junior Sara Rogers. “Growing up here, you think you know who everyone is, but you never realize what people are really like.”

“It was amazing. I think it made... the whole school closer. I think we’ll all be more respectful of each other’s opinions and views,” said MSHS senior Lucas Morris.

WHS varsity football coach Eric Johnson said he believes the experience was a positive one.

“They’re still teens, and some of the things they learned won’t hit them until later, but it definitely gave them something to think about,” he said.

After participating at both Challenge Days at WHS, Johnson said he learned a lot about his players and the different things they go through.

MSHS varsity football coach Mike Dellabona, who also participated in the event, agreed. He said he’s seen a marked change in his players since their Challenge Day experience, particularly in their decision making process.

Parent Jackie Duplechien called the day “psychologically engulfing” and “inspirational.”

“Today gave me hope for our society and our small town,” she said after participating last Tuesday, adding that she’d like to see an adapted form of the program get to seventh and eighth graders at Sisson Elementary.

Since Challenge Day, Porteous said students have been excited, positive and upbeat.

“Walking down the halls,  I see kids in their classrooms flashing the sign,” Porteous said. “It means I love you...”

“I’ve got your back, and I?respect you,” added students Hannah Crisci and Lucas Morris.

Porteous smiled. “Right. I love you, I’ve got your back, I respect you. That’s how I feel about them, and it’s nice to see it goes both ways.”

Keeping the lessons alive
Because Challenge Day is all about encouraging students to “be the change they want to see in the world,” a “Be the Change” student group will soon be formed at MSHS.

“We had 70 kids sign up to keep the Challenge Day spirit alive,” Porteous said.

See-Swenson said the Communication Council is still working to bring Challenge Day to all the other high schools in Siskiyou County, including Yreka and Dunsmuir High Schools.

To donate, checks can be made out to Siskiyou Union High School District, and sent to the attention of Barbara Porteous at Mount Shasta High School, 710 Everitt Memorial Highway in Mount Shasta.

For more information about Challenge Day, call See-Swenson at 926-3213 or go to their website at www.challengeday.org.