FalconFest helps create connected Torrey Pines campus

If it hadn’t been for FalconFest, Torrey Pines High School senior Chris Vilchis isn’t sure he would’ve ever been able to recover after losing his father to leukemia when he was just 13 years old. He said he wasn’t able to truly open up until he participated in FalconFest last year, a one-day experience that helps students release stress and anxiety and provides a place to air their problems and make connections with others.

“I’m the type of kid that controls all his feelings inside,” said Chris. “Being involved with FalconFest made me feel comfortable and safe enough to express what I had inside.”

The kid who once hid under his hoodie was a confident peer leader for his fellow Falcons this year, sharing his story out loud and crediting the program for being able to proudly look ahead to his future. 

“The amazing part of FalconFest that I love is that we can have 150 people in the gym all day having both 150 different and powerful experiences while at the same time creating a single, shared collective experience,” said Peer Assisted Listeners advisor Don Collins, who organized Falcon Fest Nov. 8-10. “It's tough to put in words, but it's healing, valuable and the kids come back year after year to experience it. I'm very proud of the work we do here because it can last a lifetime." 

Under the theme of “Open wings, open heart, open mind,” students connect with each other through dancing, games and small group conversations. They take an opportunity to express gratitude for the family and friends who help them on their way. In their own words, the teens say FalconFest is uplifting, necessary, “insanely magical” — a place for breakthroughs, coping and understanding. Each student is left with a challenge to carry the spirit of respect and kindness through campus for the rest of the year.

In one exercise called Crossing the Line, students cross a line if a circumstance read to them relates to their lives. Students crossed the line if they had been bullied, felt alone, were embarrassed by a teacher, experienced the loss of a loved one or if they had ever been homeless.

“It’s moving to see that no one’s alone and everyone has something in their lives going on,” said freshman Tammy Knopp.

A student who crossed the line with four other people who had been homeless was immediately enveloped by friends offering hugs and support.

“It’s an intense activity, it’s not easy,” Collins said. “What they learn about crossing the line is that we need each other. Having the ability to connect and trust other people makes our lives richer and better.”

One Torrey Pines alumni from the class of 2015 was participating for her ninth time — she participated in it at first when it was known as Challenge Days, put on by outside facilitators. For the last three years, Collins has run the program that reaches 600 students over the course of four days.

The student, who returned as a leader for four sessions this year, spoke about how FalconFest helped her deal with her strained relationship with her father after her parents’ divorce. He committed suicide when she was a senior before she was able to truly make amends.

“I wouldn’t have survived without FalconFest,” she said. “It taught me how you can take the negatives and turn them into positives.” 

Collins said FalconFest doesn’t happen without the support of a lot of people. He thanked his co-facillitator, French teacher Jessica Huntsberger, who uses her kindness and humor to help kids feel safe to trust one another. He also thanked Shelley Stevenson and the TPHS Foundation for coordinating the adult volunteers, and the community support received from volunteers from Rancho Del Sol Young Life, several UCSD counseling interns and the young adult leaders from the Carmel Valley Advocates program.

“The biggest thanks goes to Rob Coppo, Torrey Pines principal, who really understands the value, purpose and need for this special program. He recognizes that FalconFest helps kids demonstrate kindness and respect by becoming aware of, and connected to, other students in meaningful ways,” Collins said. 

Parent volunteer Wende Gotthelf said that she hopes all students came away with a heightened level of acceptance, support and confidence that they are not alone. 

“They sure are lucky to spend each day at a school whose arms are wrapped tightly around them,” Gotthelf said.

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