By Sue Botos
Bullying, feelings of isolation, family situations and the emotional roller coaster that is part of growing up can often leave young teens feeling like they have nowhere to turn. Challenge Day seeks to help make every child feel “safe, loved and celebrated,” and to make “violence and oppression” things of the past.
Dec. 17 and 18 will mark the 11th year Rocky River Middle School seventh-graders will participate
in Challenge Day, a hands-on, often emotional day of sharing involving students and adult facilitators. The program will take place in Memorial Hall of Rocky River’s Don Umerley Civic Center.
Westlake businesswoman and Challenge Day volunteer Suzanne Miller was inspired to bring the program to Rocky River as a board member of Community Challenge, which in 2003 was based in the city. “A friend from Ann Arbor introduced me to the program,” Miller said, adding that it was very popular in Michigan.
In December 2003, about a dozen middle school students and seventh-grade math teacher Michael Cain accompanied Miller to the University of Michigan for a Challenge Day. The rest is history.
“The students were so impressed and excited, and Mike Cain challenged them to bring the program to the Rocky River schools,” Miller recalled. She added that Challenge Day, which is designed for middle school and high school students, is offered to seventh-graders due to Cain’s strong backing. “We have this for seventh-graders because this is where the passion for the program comes from,” she stated. Miller has also helped start Challenge Days in Euclid, the Revere district and other schools in the Cleveland area.
According to information provided by Challenge Day, two leaders from the program meet with adult volunteers prior to the students’ arrival, to model the day’s activities. Basically, there are three areas supported by the activities: inclusion, which allows all group members to have a voice and feel part of the group; influence, the shaping of students’ attitudes and leadership potential; and affection, the sharing of appreciation, compliments and celebration at the end of the gathering.
“During Challenge Day we play, sing, shout, talk, listen, laugh, cry, share and celebrate,” Miller noted.
The first part of the six-hour day consists of sharing groups, where students participate in such activities as completing the sentence, “If you really knew me, you’d know …” and other exercises designed to move students out of their comfort zone. Past participants have said that it made a significant impact for the students to see that the adults have also had experience with teasing and bullying.
After lunch, the students form “family groups” consisting of four or five seventh-graders, a high school student and an adult. During this time, participants speak out, at times offering apologies, challenges, support or promises to other students and the adults. During this activity, Miller said she has seen students apologize to teachers and vice versa.
“In Rocky River we extend an invitation to the high school students, and we bring back about 15 to 30 to help,” Miller said, adding that the older students, who have already experienced Challenge Day, are the best spokespeople for the program. Miller said while participation is optional for seventh-graders, each year only a handful choose not to do so. These students participate in planned activities at the middle school.
Cain noted that it’s not only the students who are moved by Challenge Day, but the adults as well. He said that he has incorporated aspects into his lesson plans which help him to reach out to students.
“I feel strongly that this program has made a difference,” Miller stated. “It doesn’t solve problems, but it grows the sense that you are not alone and that we can learn and support each other.”
(Note: Adult volunteers are always welcome. Please contact Mike Cain at firstname.lastname@example.org for information.)