East Troy High School sophomores (from left) Lysette Pineda, Emma Mischker and Danielle Silvesteri begin the Challenge Day program by entering through a tunnel of cheering students and adults. (Photo by Eric Kramer)

Students battle bullying, social fears at Challenge Day

By Vanessa Lenz

SLN Staff

During the last half hour of East Troy High School’s Challenge Day session Oct. 18, about 100 teens exhibited a togetherness that has become a rarity in high school hallways. Forming small family groups, jocks paired up with theater gurus, cheerleaders complimented teachers and upperclassmen became fast friends with freshmen. The room at Lutherdale Camp in Elkhorn was filled with love, as program participants dropped labels and broke down barriers to address key issues facing teens today.

The activity capped off a two-day event that East Troy Community School District officials say has already positively influenced the lives of its students.

A total of 202 students in ninth through 12th grades successfully completed Challenge Day, a nationally renowned anti-violence, anti-bullying program. Seventy-six adult volunteers were divided among the groups of student participants.

“It was really intense and really well done,” said school board member Brian Wexler, who was an adult Challenge Day participant. “They taught us that hope and help is there for students going through a rough period.”

The program made its second trip into the hearts of East Troy students.

Last February, East Troy High School opened Challenge Day to a limited number of students.

District Social Worker/ Pupil Services Coordinator Mary Green, who organized the Challenge Day events for East Troy, said local students left last year’s Challenge Day determined to find a way for more students to experience its lessons.

“Those who attended Challenge Day last year were so moved by the power of the program that they felt it should be offered every year as a way to improve the climate of the high school, increase connections and understanding and build positive relationships among students,” said Green.

ETHS student Kendra Knaub and Challenge Day facilitator Florabeth Luebke share a hug. (Photo by Heather Ruenz)

Led by a motivated parent, the school district sought donations to bring Challenge Day back during the 2012-13 school year. The about $12,000 it cost to bring just the program to East Troy last week came from various local businesses, clubs and personal donors.

This year Challenge Day was open to any student who wanted to attend.

Green said about 230 students were invited, including a significant number of freshmen.

“Our statistics indicate more concern with bullying type behaviors with the freshman and sophomore students,” she said.

Green said 31 students who attended Challenge Day last year attended again as teen leaders.

 

The power of the program

Using two trained facilitators to lead a variety of activities and trust-building exercises, the Challenge Day program helps students understand they are not alone in dealing with life’s struggles and that support is available to them in many places and from many people.

The daylong activities are designed to counter bullying, stereotypes, and isolation with awareness, empathy and support, according to Challenge Day Leader Jake Cahill.

Each day started out with lighthearted games carefully designed to make teens feels comfortable opening up and talking about their feelings.

During an activity, called, “If You Really Knew Me,” participants shared their passions, feelings and fears with a group.

By the end of each day, participants learned lessons not only about being themselves, but also about their peers.

Many student participants said it was an experience they would never forget.

“It was a really great experience and I learned to open up a lot,” said Brianna Probst, freshman.

“I learned not to judge people, because you don’t know their past,” said freshman Vanessa Dingman.

Junior Joey Zess said the day was filled with love and support.

He said he walked out of the room with new levels of empathy and respect.

“It’s definitely about being more open about where people come from and what they are going through,” Zess said.

One of the most moving parts of Challenge Day was an activity called “Cross the Line,” according to freshman Julia Kostopoulos, who said the day gradually got more emotional.

She said participants were asked to cross a line if a certain negative scenario has happened to them such as “cross the line if you’ve ever dealt with drugs…if you have been depressed or currently are…if you’ve ever been teased or hurt because someone thought you were fat.”

“Everyone was in tears,” Kostopoulos said.

At the end of the day, the students were challenged to apply the lessons they learned to positively affect their school climate.

Green said the program has continued to resonate at ETHS.

“Students are more aware of what they say and do and how it affects other students. They have gotten to know other students in a way they never would have before, being able to appreciate them and their ‘story’ in a new way,” Green said.

East Troy has created a Be the Change Team as a result of Challenge Day that works to keep the spirit of the program alive at East Troy High School through meetings and activities, according to Green.

The East Troy Community School District Board has made a commitment to support Challenge Day on a yearly basis and Green said the district plans to offer it every year.

The Challenge Day program has served more than 1 million youth since 1987, according to its website. For more information, visit www.challengeday.org.

 

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