Solana Beach family continues to honor their son’s life through Challenge Day

Students at the Challenge Day circle.
Students at the Challenge Day circle.
(Courtesy of TPHS Foundation)

Challenge Day, a national organization dedicated to building empathy and compassion in communities, was shut down to an online only experience from March 13, 2020 to Sept. 1, 2021. Their four-day in-person social and emotional learning program, which has come to Torrey Pines High School since 2007, has positively impacted over 6,000 TPHS students and parent volunteers. 2021 Challenge Day TPHS parent role model volunteer Diana Li remarked, “It was an outstanding experience! It’s quite exceptional that Torrey Pines offers this to students. It was life-changing.”

The Gauntt family
TThe Gauntt family established a student scholarship fund at the TPHS Foundation in 2008 in memory of their son Jimmy Gauntt (above).
(Courtesy of the Gauntt family)

Over the past 13 years at Torrey Pines High School, the Challenge Day program has been funded by parent student enrichment donations to the TPHS Foundation. New this year, more than half of the event’s funding came from the Gauntt family, longtime residents of Solana Beach. They felt moved to direct the remainder of their son’s memorial fund to help the over 425 TPHS students and 125 parent volunteers receive a perhaps life-changing, emotional connectedness experience.

Casey and Hilary Gauntt, together with their daughter and son-in-law, Brittany and Ryan Kirby (both TPHS grads), established a student scholarship fund at the TPHS Foundation in 2008 in memory of their son, Jimmy, who was struck and killed by a car on Del Dios Highway when he was just 24 years old. The fund, donated by parents and friends of Jimmy’s, has gifted over $90,000 to 41 graduating seniors from Torrey Pines High School over the past 13 years. Jimmy, who graduated from TPHS in 2002, was Senior Class president, played four years of football, ran three years of track and field, was voted Homecoming Prince and “nicest guy” by his peers. He was an AP scholar, a Boys State finalist, National Honor Society member, recipient of the Dartmouth Book Award, the Golden Falcon Award (most acclaimed TPHS honor), and won the prestigious Trustee Scholarship to USC.

While at USC Jimmy majored in English and Spanish literature, studied abroad in Madrid and London, became fluent in Spanish, and wrote, acted and produced three plays. He graduated Phi Betta Kappa from USC in 2006, was a talented saxophone player and a prolific reader of Shakespeare, D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce, among many others. At the time of Jimmy’s death in 2008, he had just completed his fourth screenplay titled “Now is the Time.” Like Jimmy, students that had a passion to study literature, fine art, and performing arts in college could apply for the Jimmy Gauntt Memorial Scholarship annually through Torrey Pines High School. Applications were reviewed and recipients were picked by the Gauntt family.

When the Gauntt family was approached by the TPHS Foundation’s Executive Director Zephyr Fletcher in early March 2021 to see if they would like to have an impact on over 425 young adult lives by redirecting the remaining portion of their son’s memorial fund towards Challenge Days at TPHS, Casey Gauntt expressed, “The opportunities for the students to connect are vitally important as they reemerge from this extended period of COVID-mandated isolation. We would be happy to redirect the balance of ‘the Jimmy Dollars’ to your Challenge Days program.”

Students wearing Challenge Day t-shirts.
Students wearing Challenge Day t-shirts.
(Courtesy of TPHS Foundation)

Since Jimmy’s death, retired lawyer Casey Gauntt has dedicated his life to connecting with people who are overcoming the emotional difficulties of death and grieving the loss of a child. Gauntt not only lost his son, but he also lost his own father from suicide when he was just 20 years old. In a San Diego Union-Tribune article from March 28, 2021, Gauntt said he has met families who have been so wrecked by the loss of a child that they’ve never recovered. He found that the families who were most successful at managing their grief were those that channel it in a positive way, like starting foundations and scholarships in their children’s names as a lasting legacy, “or really anything that helps others.”

Because of the funding provided by the Jimmy Gauntt Memorial Fund, Torrey Pines High School, under San Dieguito Union High School District’s COVID protocols, was allowed to hold in-person Challenge Days from Oct. 12 - 15. This program has nationally impacted over 2,700 schools in 33 years and 1.7 million students and adults. This year, for the first time, Challenge Day was completely booked at TPHS in advance.

“We (Torrey Pines staff) knew that coming out of COVID this year Challenge Days would be needed more than any other year,” said TPHS Principal Rob Coppo. “Knowing that emotions and life challenges could be at an all-time high due to isolation, the (TPHS) Foundation reached out to Challenge Day early in 2021, to monitor the progress of reopening to in-person experiences. We felt grateful they were able to come this year.”

TPHS’s social and emotional outreach teacher Don Collins exclaimed, “Wouldn’t it be great to go to a school where everyone felt safe, loved and celebrated! With Challenge Day, we have the opportunity to create that safe environment for one day and hope this experience will encourage a continuance of empathy and tolerance.”

Jeff Owen, TPHS PALS teacher and Challenge Day week staff coordinator summarized, “Challenge Day consists of a six-hour workshop held in TPHS’s gymnasium providing a structured platform that gives all students a special opportunity to connect with their peers to overcome struggles or insecurities, learn about tolerance, empathy and repressing social cues and stereotypes.”

Beach Ball at Challenge Day
Beach Ball at Challenge Day
(Courtesy of TPHS Foundation)

To start off the day, parent volunteers and student leaders greeted the students in a long tunnel, high-fiving students and cheering them on along the way. The early morning mostly consisted of games and icebreakers to help the students have fun and feel comfortable. Then, students and parents were put into small groups of five-six, where they were given about two minutes each to share about whatever they wanted. There were no limits or restrictions on what they could share with their “family circle.”

By the end of this activity, most students agreed that they felt closer to this small group of people than some of the students they have been in school with for years. One of the most emotional activities of the day was called “Cross the Line.” In this activity, students would cross the line if a statement or situation said by the facilitators applied to them. Not only did this make students recognize that their peers were going through more than they may have originally thought, but it also made them realize that they were not alone. Students and parents alike were crossing the line with them and offering them a hug or a shoulder to cry on. Those who did not cross the line, put up the “I love you” sign language gesture in support.

“The first thing my son said when he came home from school, was ‘Challenge Day was so awesome mom!’” TPHS Parent Kelly Conway remarked, “It’s not often your teenager says that about a school day!”

Traci Acers, TP Parent, Foundation board member and Challenge Day coordinator, reflected, “The Challenge Day program has been an absolutely inspiring empathetic social and emotional learning adventure for me to coordinate.” Acer’s husband, Trever, said of his one day 7:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. volunteering experience, “I think I got more out of volunteering for this one day emotionally than almost anything else I have volunteered for in the past.” Zephyr Fletcher, TPHS Foundation executive director, commented, “When I lost my father from a sudden heart attack when I was graduating eighth grade, my family’s world fell apart. It would have been amazing to have Challenge Days to emotionally connect with others that may have gone through something so life changing. I can’t thank the Gauntt family enough for their decision to use Jimmy’s Memorial fund to affect so many at our school this week. I’m pretty sure Jimmy somehow spiritually helped them with their impactful decision.”

If you want to keep this program funded at Torrey Pines, donate to TPHS Classroom and Student Enrichment in support of Challenge Days and go to: — TPHS Foundation news release