By MAGGIE MENDERSKI
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
HANNIBAL, Mo. -- Hannibal High School students broke the chain of routine on Tuesday, and instead started a chain reaction of kindness.
Rachel's Challenge presenters Kristi Krings and Ali Nourbakhsh met with about 100 members of the Hannibal High School Natural Helpers Club and faculty to implement a change in community thinking. The day-long program served as the first link of what the participants hope to be an ongoing act of togetherness and kindness at the school.
The program honors the first victim of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. Rachel Joy Scott had a passion for reaching out to those in need of a friend. While Scott died more than a decade ago, her legacy has diminished bullying and aided suicide prevention.
Representatives from Rachel's Challenge have traveled to schools nationwide and spoken to more than 18 million participants. These retreats encourage participants to go out of their way, just as Rachel did, to reach out to others.
"We want to make sure every single one of you has a Rachel and can be a Rachel for someone else," Krings said.
Eighteen-year-old Jake Borgmeyer, 16-year-old Melanie Blase and 16-year-old Tiara Bonner were among the students that Rachel's Challenge encouraged to drop social facades and form new friendships.
"A lot of people here, you'd never see together," Bonner said.
Blase noted that most schools struggle to bury stereotypes and would benefit from this type of program.
"I feel at any school there's a sense of not together," Blase said.
Krings and Nourbakhsh spent a day encouraging participants to speak honestly about their feelings and hardships. Using small group discussions and inclusive activities, the participants illustrated the hurt they often feel wasn't all that different from the person standing next to them. The students learned that everyone needs a friend and that the community needs more people eager to be one.
"I mean that I'm there, and I want to be there," Borgmeyer said. "If you do the little things, then other people will see that."
Krings lined the students and faculty members along the side of the gymnasium wall and read off a list of circumstances. She asked each person who had these hardships to step a yard away from the group and look into the eyes of their peers. This silent activity revealed who among the crowd had felt harassed, had witnessed domestic violence and even who had contemplated suicide.
Krings asked the group to hold their hands over their hearts as a sign of support to the confessions. When the admissions escalated from racial difficulties to thoughts of hurting themselves, the line curved as student accepted embraces. Puffy, tear-filled eyes peppered the line while the students and faculty members cried for their own hardships and cried for each other.
"Look left and right and notice you are not alone," Krings said.
Following the line activity, they gathered in clusters of three teens and one adult and discussed the difficult confessions. Whether adopted, abused, part of a broken family, suicidal or insecure, each person in the group seemed to confess at least one hardship. In just six hours, the Natural Helpers Club formed a bond of commonalities they hoped would catch on to the entire student body.
"You turned this gym into family," Nourbakhsh told the crowd.
Toward the end of the seminar, the students and faculty were given the opportunity to speak. Many used the microphone to share specific stories about their life struggles. Some conveyed words of thanks to the presenters. Still, others encouraged their classmates to maintain this desire for a healthier school.
"You have to lead by example, and show that you're passionate about it," Blase said.
Nourbakhsh asked them to consider the difficulties of acting kind in a traditional social setting. He explained it's much easier to convey connectivity among cliques when a retreat situation shakes the participants out of their comfort zones.
"If you think it's going to be easy, you're fooling yourself," Nourbakhsh said.
At the end of the afternoon, students signed "Got Your Back" pledges to each other. Nourbakhsh asked the students to live out these commitments. These signatures indicated that the signer would say hello to the person in all settings. The signer also had to maintain a level a trust and would be eager to help out should the person need them.
"If you let this stop here, then we failed you today," Nourbakhsh said.