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Challenged To Change

Change won't come overnight, but those Escalon High students that were part of the recent Challenge Day hosted at the school are determined that change will come.

Change, in the form of a more accepting high school campus, one that welcomes diversity and stays free of 'cliques' that segregate the students. Change, that students and the adult facilitators that went through the program with them, hope will extend into the larger Escalon community.

It's all part of a 'Be the Change' movement taking shape at the school, which grew out of a series of town hall meetings hosted last year. A group of core students at the high school has been meeting on a regular basis and issuing daily or weekly 'challenges' to the rest of the student body, anything from holding a door open for people that day to taking the time to say hello to someone on campus they don't know.

Escalon High School Principal Joel Johannsen, who served as a facilitator for the all day program on Friday, said the effort involved 100 students each day, coming from a broad cross section of the student body.

Two 'Be the Change' program leaders were on hand to introduce the program and oversee the event, which included some morning 'ice breaker' activities and more in-depth, small group discussions in the afternoon, culminating with a whole group 'cross the line' event. In that exercise, various scenarios were listed and those that had experienced that feeling or that event were asked to 'cross the line.' In some cases, dozens crossed the line at the same time - showing their sameness - while at other times, only one or two people crossed the line - showing the ways students can still be isolated.

"It's a conscientious effort," Johannsen said of getting students to take responsibility for their actions toward each other. "We had a wide swath of students, all different groups, we had kids that are leaders, respected in their groups."

The hope is, he added, that those students who participated will take the Challenge Day message of acceptance and inclusion back to their individual groups, working toward a more unified campus.

"This isn't an event, it's a movement," Johannsen said.

Gathering first with leaders Ray Ray and Jolana of the Challenge Day organization, those attending the program greeted each other with hugs or handshakes, whichever made them more comfortable, and then started out with a series of exercises to get them ready for the adventure that lay ahead.

"When you just walked through that door," Ray Ray told the group on Friday morning, "you got on a roller coaster ride."

He promised them fun - but also a chance to be serious - and said the goal was to get real with each other and learn from each other.

"We're going to start sharing things about us, get real," added Jolana. "Talk about what's really going on with you."

The leaders also encouraged people to 'get out of their comfort zone' by working and sharing with those in the room they didn't know, rather than stay seated by their friends.

Later broken down into 'family groups' with one adult volunteer facilitator and four to five students, the small discussions covered a gamut of topics and issues, with ample time given to each 'family' member to have the floor, uninterrupted, to share their thoughts and concerns about each one.

"Expect incredible things in this room today," Jolana told the assembled students and adult leaders.

Key to the experience - and the Be the Change movement - are three words, Jolana added, noting the large 'Notice, Choose, Act' sign hanging in the room.

"These are three really simple steps to help you create what you want, the life of your dreams," she said.

The first step, she said, is to wake up, and notice what is happening at school. Second is to choose the type of school they want and third is to start taking action to create that school.

"Act is the smallest word that is the biggest word," she explained. "This is the step you take where you start to make things happen."

The all day event ran both Thursday and Friday in the old gym at the high school and took up the bulk of the school day, from roughly 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Among the volunteer adult facilitators on Friday was teacher Sue Gentry.

"It was a really powerful experience, an exhausting day," she admitted. "A lot of kids confided a lot of things, there were a lot of tears and it was kind of eye-opening."

Like many of those involved in bringing the Challenge Day program to Escalon, Gentry is hopeful that the change it seeks - breaking down barriers between students and creating a more cohesive campus and community - will be realized.

"The real challenge, of course, is not forgetting the day," Gentry said. "Can you step up and follow through ... gosh, I hope so."

Gentry said she was encouraged and moved by a time at the end of the day when anyone could take the microphone and share. During that time, she said, some students got up to apologize for things they had said or done in the past that may have hurt others. In some cases, she said, the apology was given from one specific person to another.

"I have confidence," Gentry added of seeing the program succeed. "A lot of kids talked really highly of it ... I'm hopeful because we've got a lot of great kids in Escalon."

Sophomore Rachel Frasier was one of those attending the program and said though she wasn't quite sure what to expect, it exceeded her expectations.

"It turned out to be a life changing experience for me," Frasier said. "I learned a lot about other people. I want people to stop making fun of people because of the way they look, the way they wear their hair ... I'm really glad I went, it changed my perspective on other people and I learned not to judge."

Frasier is hoping other students came away with similar reactions.

School counselor Ray Roncale said the day was emotionally draining but, like others, is hopeful the benefits will be reaped in the months and years to come.

"I hope it does bring the message that diversity shouldn't separate us," he said. "I spoke to a lot of the parents there and they are hoping it will really bring the kids together, bring the community together.

"At least we're making some kind of effort."

Roncale said he knows there is a long way to go, but offering the Challenge Day program is a beginning.

Parent Tina Machado was one of the driving forces behind bringing the Challenge Day program to Escalon, working with counselors Sandy Pendley and teachers Stephanie DeFreitas and Jason Collinsworth.

"It's hard to explain what it is," Machado said of taking part in the actual Challenge Day event. "It is life changing but you have to be open to the process ... it's just real powerful."

One hundred students participated each day, she said, with the hope that those 200 take messages to their 'groups' and start working toward unification in the true sense of the word.

"This was very empowering for the kids and that's the main thing," she said. "They know they are the ones that are going to show that kindness, that respect ... this is something we've been looking for to make a change.

"The kids are on fire and I'm going with it."

Senior Katie Veenstra was also impacted by her time at Challenge Day and is a member of the Be the Change team on campus.

"What we learned is to not judge, to look at people through the eyes of love, not hate," she said. "I've always wanted to know that when I leave high school, I've made it a better place ... this can be a forever changing thing, this can make it a better place."