The message around the Torrey Pines High School gym was clear: “Open wings, open mind, open heart.”
The open and honest message was part of the inaugural FalconFest, a “transformational” four-day event that encouraged students to be respectful, aware and real, and to promote a kinder campus — a school environment based on understanding and acceptance.
For several years, Torrey Pines had Challenge Days presented by facilitators from Challenge Day, a company based out of Concord. The program cost about $25,000 to bring to the school, and administrators had been looking for a way to produce the positive event on their own, tapping teacher and Peer Assistant Listeners program adviser Don Collins.
The result was four packed sessions with lots of hugs, lots of tears and lots of important sharing and acceptance.
“We wanted to tailor the event to not just address the overall issues teens face in high school, like feeling alone or peer pressure, but to also address some of the Torrey Pines-specific issues, like stress and being a new international student, with a message that is from the students of Torrey Pines themselves,” said Collins, who led the event with Terry Hendlin, the mother of two TPHS alumni.
“A lot of parents said it was more powerful to do it in-house. Kids got involved right away and were sharing more.”
Senior Madison Lombard has attended Challenge Day and FalconFest all four years. “This day was amazing because of the trust in the room,” she said. “I really felt safe to be me. It wasn’t just the FalconFest, it was the FalconBest!”
Collins said FalconFest would not have been possible without support and assistance from Bobbi Karlson and TPHS Foundation and adult volunteer coordinator Shelley Stevenson.
For FalconFest, Collins kept many of the games and activities that Challenge Day had, but added other features, one of which was a video where TPHS students talked about issues they had dealt with such as molestation, the death of a sibling and race problems.
Senior Nathan Gibbs compiled the video and was surprised at how willingly his peers opened up.
“It was an honor to put this together,” he said of the video that was watched by all 487 students over the four days.
FalconFest came at just the right time for many, as students and staff were grieving the loss of “Coach C” Scott Chodorow, a teacher, adviser and cheer coach at the school. Collins said 50 additional students signed up for Falcon Fest on the Monday after his passing. A photo of Coach C was placed on a stand at the center of the gym.
Students shared in “family groups” where they could connect with people they may pass daily in the halls without ever really knowing what’s going on inside their lives.
Through the honest and open sharing, students are able to recognize that they’re not alone.
One student said that he knows some people have been mean to him and others, but now he understands that they only have a “tough outer shell” — that they are going through something difficult internally.
“We do better when we know better, when we appreciate each other from the inside out,” Collins said.
One student showed vulnerability by apologizing to a friend in front of the group for saying hurtful things. Another boy wanted to give a shout-out to his close friends who had always supported him.
Each family group was paired with an adult, many of them staff members or TPHS parents. Geoff McCloud, a retired San Diego Unified District teacher, was a visiting leader. He said he would love to see this program at every school.
“This was very moving for me. I’ve gotten to know some wonderful students,” McCloud said.
“It is hard to be a human being sometimes,” he told the students. “It’s hard to be an advocate for the little guy, for the kid in the middle of the group being picked on. It takes courage to try and be powerful when you’re not used to being powerful.”
In one activity, Collins asked the students to write a letter of thanks and appreciation to a person who has always supported them,
“How many different ways can you say ‘I love you’?” Collins prompted the students. “How many different ways are there to say ‘You matter to me,’ ‘I’m so grateful you’re in my life,’ ‘You were there when nobody else was.’”
Collins asked them to think about how they would deliver that note to the person they wrote it to. Many students opted to share that information with the entire group.
Students said that they had written to inspiring teachers like Ryland Wickman and Richard Robinette. One student picked Collins himself.
“Thank you for always having my back,” she said. “You’ve guided me and shown me the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Touchingly, a handful of thank-you notes were left on a stand holding a photo of Coach C.