Sela Gaglia was pregnant with her first son and living in Columbine when the infamous Columbine High School shootings happened. The day after the shootings, a group of counselors and experts swooped into the school to cast a caring net and held a community-wide “Challenge Day.” Challenge Day, a day-long seminar offered to high schools, seeks to help students break down the barriers that separate each other and empowers them to transform their school’s culture. After the Columbine shootings, Challenge Day founders, Rich and Yvonne Dutra-St. John, knew they had their work cut out for them; it was time to expand their program across the country.
On that same day, Sela knew she had to move from being a mother-to-be to a mother who cared.
“I had to make a strong personal commitment,” she said from Challenge Day’s office in Concord, California, “to make this world the kind of place that my son could grow up in.”
As Sela set out to raise three children (ages two and eight, and a stepson, fifteen), that promise inspired her into action. While Sela had attended her own Challenge Day at nineteen, and later became an adult volunteer during college, it took a family seeped in Challenge Day ethic and a direct invitation from the Challenge Day staff for Sela to take on the task of training for the position of Challenge Day Leader.
Sela explained over the phone that what happens at Challenge Day in high schools across the country is nothing short of extraordinary. Thousands of students share their deepest secrets, fears, hurts, and eventually, hope, within the safe confines of their high school gym. But before that can transpire, nine weeks of intense prep work must happen through a the team of teachers, administrators, and Challenge Day staff. They watch Challenge Day videos and work together to discuss their specific issues. These issues run the gamut, from high teen pregnancy rates or incarceration rates, to a hijacked culture suffering from the high-pressure idea that success only comes through acceptance to the country’s best universities. Challenge Day responds to the high schools’ needs by choosing the best leader, based on a matched vulnerability and knowledge of the issue, and when the day arrives, “that’s when the magic happens,” says Sela.
“They [the students] watch each other respond to us [the leaders and facilitators] with compassion. We watch the kids soften. When they see how others see, they feel closer to each other. When they share like that, they want the same response [from others].”
But it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a seven-hour journey through each teenager’s life before the kids get to the point when they sit in circles and open up their hearts to their peers. First, Challenge Day Leaders stand in front of the gym and share their personal stories—often stories the teens can relate to. Sela noted that it’s after this moment, and during the next exercise, that a power shift occurs.
“When the kids cross the line back and forth for various experiences or categories of social oppression, the room is so safe at that point in the day because of play. Kids lose play early now, but we [do earlier exercises that] make being goofy, being silly, being childlike, cool. We make being nice cool.”
Sela witnesses transformation each time, and while sharing an experience from one day, I sensed a smile at the other end of the line.
“I asked this one boy, ‘If the world was perfect according to you, what would it look like? He said, ‘everybody would be equal, everybody would love each other, and everybody would work together to make the world a better place.’”
It Takes the Village
Challenge Day trains its leaders on how to best interact with teenagers and teaches leaders to work without force. “The students are always in choice to speak throughout the day. The best thing to do is let the kid sit [if they aren’t participating], no matter what.”
Due to Challenge Day’s popularity, especially after an appearance on Oprah in 2006, interested schools have to commit and submit a year-long plan to Challenge Day to show what they will do to keep the program running, called Be the Change.
“When Gandhi said that we have to be the heroes we’re looking for, we’re inspiring young people to be their own heroes,” Sela said. Each high school creates a Be the Change team, a group of dedicated students and staff that keep the Challenge Day principles in action.
In Orlando, Florida, that meant converting what the kids had learned into creating a positive difference in the community. Holly Payberg-Torroija, Mentorship Chair of the Florida chapter of Women in Film and Television, founded the Central Florida Circle of Change to work with the Be the Change movement. She brought the Challenge Day principles into the entertainment world and connected the hundred teens in her Be the Change group with professionals in the industry to establish their own “It’s All Good” news club. The club’s mission is to report on what’s right in the world instead of what’s wrong. Circles of Change as an extension of Challenge Day’s program now exist in thirty-eight communities throughout the United States., Canada, and the Netherlands.
Sela shared another student’s story from a San Diego Challenge Day event. Athletic and good looking, he was the kind of student most thought would have it made. He shared a surprising secret:
“He was from South Africa and he had never even shared with his therapist that his family was held hostage for three days. He said: “What these three men did to my family was unspeakable. They were hurt by white people [in the past]; they took that pain and used it on my family and now I have the choice to take that pain and use it on black people, but I’m not going to do that.”
With stories such as these, it’s no wonder that students plus Challenge Day equals success.