Challenge Day Promotes Empathy Among Local Youth

Imagine a school in which every student feels welcomed, cared for and celebrated.

Information collected from the CHILL Counseling Program during the first semester of the 2016-17 school year indicated youth attending Winter Park Consortium secondary schools — Winter Park High School (WPHS), Winter Park Ninth Grade Center (9GC), Glenridge Middle School (GMS) and Maitland Middle School (MMS) – did not feel this way among their peers.  The data showed an increased need for social and emotional support and education for students.   Additionally, during the first semester for the 2016-17 school year, CHILL Counselors collectively reported an increased need for crisis intervention with students in comparison with prior school years.

Based on CHILL’s findings, and modeling after activities implemented in other Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) secondary schools, Winter Park High School’s School Advisory Council (WPHS SAC) led a community-driven effort to bring Challenge Day to the WPC secondary schools.  Challenge Day is a day-long experience that strengthens emotional safety and social relationships, builds cross cultural connections, and reduces conflict and bullying.  The goal was to help WPC secondary school students understand and respect cultural, social, and economic differences; and enable the development of powerful, united school communities promoting emotional safety and social connectedness among adolescents living in Winter Park, Maitland and Eatonville.

Challenge Day youth participants at Winter Park High School.

WPHS SAC’s coordination, along with the many individuals and businesses who donated funds and resources, including a grant from the Winter Park Health Foundation’s, made Challenge Day a possibility for the youth attending WPC secondary schools.  In February, four Challenge Day sessions were held: two at WPHS and one at each of the middle schools.

During the Challenge Day sessions, students used Gandhi’s quote, “Be the change you want to see in others,” to immerse themselves in the challenge of recognizing the individual role each student plays in the school.  This included awareness of tools to break down the barriers that cause misunderstandings, bullying and isolation.

Nearly 400 students from an intentional cross-section of the WPC secondary schools’ demographics and social circles, along with 100 adults (Challenge Day staff, school faculty/staff, and parent volunteers), participated in the Challenge Days.

Activities at the beginning of the day were designed to remind students to have fun and just be kids for a while. As the day progressed, the focus turned to looking at how the participants deal with the problems they face in life.

The day had its share of more serious moments, especially after an activity called “Walk the Line,” in which participants cross a line when a statement that is true for them is read aloud. Statements ranged from “please cross the line if you have ever been teased, picked on or bullied” to “please cross the line if you or your family has ever been negatively affected by alcohol or other drugs.”

Challenge Day adult volunteers at Glenridge Middle School.

Preliminary data collected from Challenge Day participant surveys indicate reduced emotional stress and increased positive student relationships.  Several students described Challenge Day as the best day of their lives.  The acceptance and appreciation developed during Challenge Day will continue and spread.  The WPHS SAC has created Be the Change, with the goal of creating a lasting secondary school community and culture that values diversity, supports differences and builds positive relationships. Through Be the Change, and with support from WPHF grant and other donors, programs will be created to help local youth develop the tools needed to communicate, adapt and thrive in an ever more complicated world.

Together, Challenge Day and the ongoing Be the Change movement will help local students feels welcomed, cared for and celebrated.  Stay tuned for updates as the Be the Change movement unfolds!