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Volume V Issue XXXVII

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Seattle Washington USA

 

CHALLENGE DAY: A UNIQUE PROGRAM THAT CHANGES LIVES

by MARKREIMAN

cd-founders.jpg (246373 bytes)
Rich Dutra-St. John and Yvonne St. John-Dutra are the founders of Challenge Day.

For many people Hawaii’s island of Oahu conjures up the image of a relaxing vacation or a stunning, tropical paradise. But not for everyone.

Intense gang rivalry between Samoan and Filipino students was boiling on Oahu. Fights, beatings, and other acts of violence between the two groups had made fear a part of everyday life for many young people and it had infected their schools.

School officials decided to bring in the team from Challenge Day, a multi-faceted day-long program of activities, exercises, discussion, and small and large group sharing aimed at breaking down fear, anger, and violence. Challenge Day leaders proceeded to work with more than 100 students including the gang members and, as the day progressed, an environment of safety and acceptance was slowly, skillfully created. Students and adults together learned how and why people hurt each other, and themselves, unconsciously continuing the destructive behavior and way of thinking that virtually all of us have learned from childhood. They began to realize that they, like most people, unnecessarily accept fear, anger, and violence as "normal".

cd-small group.jpg (10212 bytes)During Challenge Day, when participants feel physically and emotionally safe, they are encouraged tell their Truth…the truth about how they really feel, often releasing torrents of hurt feelings. Many times there are tears, but these are tears of relief, acknowledgement, and healing. As the Challenge Day program continued that day on Oahu, young people held each other, cried, and said they were sorry to one another. Nearly all who had begun the day as enemies were ending the day making amends.

Several months passed. One of the Oahu school administrators attending a Challenge Day faculty training on one of the other Islands stood to speak. Her eyes filled with tears and voice choked with grateful emotion as she told the participants about a young man who had been a leader in the gang violence. Although he had a long, ongoing history of truancy, since the Challenge Day he had not missed a day of school. He had always been a charismatic leader but now, rather than leading others to fight and hate, he was all about teaching love and unity. She said she had witnessed a miracle.

"Peace on earth is possible…"

"I live every day in miracles," exclaims Yvonne St. John-Dutra, who along with her husband, Rich, started Challenge Day in 1987. "To watch a room filled with up to two hundred kids, who may or may not know each other, who judge, stereotype, even hate each other…and then watch it transform completely in a few hours to a place of compassion and love…I know without a doubt that peace on earth is possible. I see it happen every day!"

cd-large group activity.jpg (132427 bytes)When Rich and Yvonne began Challenge Day in 1987, they were pioneers in this approach, with no word of mouth to bring their program to more schools. Schools were reluctant to try their new program. But when a teen who had been deeply affected by a Challenge Day wrote about how profound his experience was, it was published in the book Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul. More and more schools began to call. Following the tragic violence at Columbine High School, in April of 1999 Yvonne and Rich were asked to bring the Challenge Day program to the greater Denver area. In the fall of 2000 a film documentary entitled Teen Files:Survivng High School, which they had helped develop, aired. That school year, 2000-2001, Challenge Day doubled the number of schools it had served the previous year. For the 2001-2002 school year the number has doubled again. Since its inception Challenge Day programs have been presented to 350 schools in 14 states. Their all-day, seven hour program has touched more than 200,000 students. One to two hour school assemblies have reached 300,000 more. For many years the program’s founders were the only Challenge Day leaders -- now there are nine.

Understanding Social Oppression

When Yvonne and Rich St. John-Dutra met and fell in love in the East Bay region of the San Francisco Bay Area both had been working with teens and addiction programs. They also had in common a mutual frustration that their intervention efforts were always aimed at a person after they were in crisis, after they "hit bottom", after hurting themselves and others.

cd-held_aloft.jpg (18202 bytes)"We were tired of dealing with only symptoms," explains Yvonne. "We thought, What would it be like to create something that helps people…before the crisis happens? What actually causes the hurt that people then (try) to "numb out"?

The answer involves understanding something we experience every day in different ways. Many people believe it is "just the way things are". It’s called social oppression. If you have ever been harassed, hurtfully teased, or felt part of an "out group" in any environment, you know what it is and how it feels. Particular groups, be they social, racial, gender, ethnic, or political have power over other groups. What happens to those who have lesser power? How do those people or groups act out? How do we separate from one another? In other words, what are the stories we tell, what stereotypes do we construct or simply accept, to convince ourselves that they are so different from us and therefore, it is acceptable, even justified, to treat them with contempt - even violence? These are the issues of social oppression.

"We’re in the business of breaking down the walls that separate people," says Benjamin Schick of Challenge Day. "We are able to create an environment where people get a sense of what it’s like to be around others who are compassionate and accepting and loving. The amazing thing about human beings that we have found over and over again is that a child…even an adult…who has never really been in a safe environment before, in the course of the day, are able to have that experience (of emotional safety and acceptance). And after just one day of that, even after a lifetime of hurt, once they have had that experience, it’s very hard to go back."

"I get teased every day…"

At the start of a Challenge Day in Sacramento, Yvonne sat down casually with some students and said, "Do you know any of these kids? Tell me about them."

cd-guy girl bk2bk.jpg (8966 bytes)"That’s Susan," one of them pointed. Susan was a special education student with developmental disabilities, perhaps Down’s Syndrome. "We don’t like her."

"Why? asked Yvonne.

"I don’t know, everybody just teases her."

Susan’s mother happened to be there that day to help in her daughter’s small group because she needed extra assitance. As the day progressed, the participants gathered in one large circle and were encouraged to share "their Truth", their true feelings. Susan stood up and said slowly and clearly, "I get teased every single day and I want it to stop!"

Yvonne addressed the entire group, saying, "If any of you have ever hurt Susan, you have an opportunity now to make amends. If you feel sorry and are committed to never do it again, I’d love for you to come look her in the eyes and tell her that." One by one, every one of the150 kids in the room got up and stood in line. One at a time, many through tears said, "I’m sorry, Susan." Everyone had been tormenting and teasing her! These kids really understood what they had been doing to her. Her mother sent Yvonne a card that read, "I’ll never be able to thank you enough…my daughter’s life changed forever."

Fear is the biggest challenge

According to St. John-Dutra, Challenge Day’s biggest challenge of all has proven to be fear. And the fears are many. Schools may fear students displaying strong emotions. When kids open up about their true feelings, including their hurts, there are tears in the room and a roomful of teenagers in tears makes many a school administrator afraid of the potential problems.

Schools may fear that they don’t have the resources needed to deal with the issues which might be found if students feel safe enough to disclose their hurt. When kids feel safe speaking out, some will undoubtedly say, ‘I’m being harassed every day at school.’ Schools may not want to know, truly, how many of the girls are being sexually harassed, or that racism might exist intensely in every classroom because it could overwhelm their ability to carry on "business as usual".

The good news, echo both Yvonne and CD's director, Ben Schick, is that as much fear and resistance as people have to emotions, lack of resources, change, or anything else, there’s just no denying the power of what happens to people in the room during a Challenge Day.

Lives are Changed

Violence had broken out in a northern California town between two rival kids gangs, the Reds and the Blues. Someone from the Blues had killed one of the kids in the Red group. "The school," recalls Yvonne, "brought us in to do a Challenge Day. We had the main gang leaders, kids from the school, police, counselors, administrators…everybody was watching to see what we could do because they hadn’t been able to do anything to stop the violence."

"Honestly," Yvonne admits, "I didn’t know if it would work. I was praying that a miracle would happen."

cd-2girls hugging.jpg (9957 bytes)It was very hard in the beginning to get them to move or to participate at all. The two groups stood on opposite sides of the big circle of participants with their arms crossed as the Challenge Day exercises took place, glaring at one another, their angry, macho attitudes dominating the energy of the room.

"Finally, at one point I pulled them all in close and decided to get vulnerable," Yvonne said. "I started to cry and talked about what our culture has done to us. It’s taught us to keep our feelings inside and hate each other and to hurt each other."

"One of the young men, one of the gang leaders, I could see his eyes welling up and I thought, I prayed that perhaps we had found an entry point into his heart. When we turned it over to the group to speak, this young man stood up and he screamed, ‘I’m tired of the bloodshed! I’m tired of it! Which one of you is man enough to quit the fighting?’"

Slowly, one at a time every one of those kids from the Reds and the Blues stood up. They came together in the middle and put their arms around each other and held on and cried. And then they began speaking about the pain -- of being beaten by their dads, and told they had to be these macho men. As they listened to one another, they heard their same pain, their same tragic stories, coming from people in the opposing groups. They could relate to each other perfectly. They understood the terrible, ridiculous truth: "I was hurt just like you were hurt, and now because of it, we’re killing each other." That day, in those moments, lives were changed forever.

Nobody wins at The Game

When I talk with incredible people, I am fascinated to know about the people and events in their own lives that have inspired them. Yvonne St. John-Dutra’s own personal story of inspiration was not what I expected, and I found it as sobering as it is inspiring.

"I remember," says Yvonne, "growing up as a fat kid with braces…tormented, teased, and humiliated daily…I remember that pain like it was yesterday. The kids who hurt, teased, and tormented me inspired me. I developed an eating disorder and lost weight. Suddenly I was seen as "attractive" and the same kids who had tormented me voted me homecoming queen of the school. They thought they should treat me nice now because my outer package was different. After becoming the so-called "popular girl", those same kids started teasing me for being conceited and stuck up. It was at that point I realized that nobody wins at The Game. The kids who teased me, who I have compassion for, I understand they just learned it. They just passed on what they learned and they passed on their hurt…and they probably inspired me the most. Nobody wins in The Game of Separation and Social Oppression. We all are targets of social oppression, and we all lose."

One lasting message…

"If people come away from this article with just one thing," I asked Yvonne, "what would it be?"

She thought for a moment and then answered, "It is absolutely possible, and in a very short time, to have peace on earth. If everyone of us knew it was possible, our fear and our hopelessness would vanish, and we’d create it."

*Editor’s note: There is a lot more to know about Challenge Day. Please visit their informative website which includs details of their program, testimonials, and contact information found at www.ChallengeDay.org/

 

 

mark.gif (4144 bytes)Mark Reiman is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Incredible People Magazine.  He would love to hear your feedback at Mark@IncrediblePeople.com. Or visit our staff page at http://www.incrediblepeople.com/staff.htm

 

Hope      Courage     Determination      Compassion
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