By Karen Billing
Imagine this scene: A teenager having the confidence to stand in front of a room of peers and tearfully admit to vulnerability. She talks about the fact that she just moved to this country days ago and is a stranger in a new high school and misses her best friends. The reaction? A group of students stand to welcome her and offer their friendship, wrapping her up in genuine hugs.
This is Torrey Pines High School during Challenge Days.
Over four days, 500 students opt to go through the program, supported by facilitators from Challenge Day, a company based out of Concord, Calif. Since 1987, Challenge Day has led workshops to help break down barriers and promote a school environment that is based on “understanding, acceptance and love.” Simply put by one of the Torrey Pines Challenge Day students: “High school is really hard on everyone, what can we do to make it easier.”
Through their workshop groups, students connect with people they see in the hallway every day but may never know what’s going on inside other students’ lives. Students are encouraged to share and give reasons of “if you really knew me, you would know…”
“Even the people you least expect to have problems have them,” said one student.
Jolana Bishay, who has led Challenge Days at schools across the country since 2004, calls the entire experience “heart-opening.”
“They recognize that they’re not alone,” said Bishay. “The power of just being honest, of dropping the masks and getting real with each other allows them to connect across lines of difference. They get to break outside of judgments and stereotypes and get empowered to create change in their lives, and they have this amazing group to do it with.”
Students open up about everything from eating disorders to watching their parents’ marriage fall apart. Students speak about facing racism, finding acceptance for their sexuality, having physical challenges and just being “different.”
One student, in his third year at Challenge Day, rejected the idea that anyone is truly “different,” imploring his fellow students to compare thumbprints.
“No one’s is better,” he said. “Never think you are better than someone. We are all equal.”
Teacher Don Hollins, who planned Challenge Days at TPHS and participated in all four days, is always amazed by the gratitude, respect and kindness he sees from the students — event those who initially appeared skeptical about the program.
“I’m more open now,” said one student. “My freshman year, I wasn’t expecting that much comfort and tolerance for what I had to say.”
One student said her mother encouraged her to do Challenge Days. The student said she felt more relaxed and like a weight had been lifted after she was able to express herself.
“It’s never any less amazing,” said one student in her second year participating in Challenge Days. “A lot of things can happen in a year, we face new problems every year. Challenge Day has given me the strength to look into myself and fix my own life and be the change I want to see in my own life.”
The student said last year’s Challenge Days event empowered her to break up with a boyfriend who hit her.
Parent Anastasia Rose volunteered at the Challenge Days event for the first time this year, and her daughter participated in the program. She hoped to have a dialogue with her in the coming days about both of their experiences.
“It’s very eye opening, they didn’t have something like this when I was a kid,” Rose said. “As a parent it helps to know some of the stresses that kids are going through.”
Be The Change Club is the follow-up activity to Challenge Week. Students spread what they learned during Challenge Week to the rest of the school.
Torrey Pines also has a Together As One Club that meets every day for lunch, helping to welcome students who are new to the school and to the country.
Hollins said there are 950 new students at Torrey Pines High School every year: While 800 are freshman, 150 students are transfers from places all over the world, such as Iran, Portugal, Hong Kong and Korea.
In a way, as the Challenge Days event ends, the challenge is just beginning, Bishay said. The two clubs are just a couple of ways to ensure the school remains a connected, welcoming place. She challenged students to “let go of judgments, accept everyone, give up hurtful language, give out genuine compliments, get real, be vulnerable and not be afraid to be themselves.”
“Make this change sustainable,” Bishay said.
The Challenge Days event was made possible by teacher Don Hollins, the Torrey Pines High School Foundation, and several parent volunteers who work in groups with the students.
Hollins also thanked lead student coordinator Bailey Pope, who had help from juniors Mimi Najmabadi and Isabella Gadinis, and TPHS Foundation officers Bobbi Karlson, Terry Wolter and Holly Coughlin, who provided financial support in addition to doing “everything from checking 125 kids in each morning to ordering and setting up lunch each afternoon.”
Shelley Stevenson, PALS parent liaison, was also “invaluable” in organizing the 150 adult participants, according to Hollins.
“They are the unsung champions of this event that creates the space for real transformations to take place in the attitudes and self concepts of so many students. It’s an amazing team to be part of,” said Hollins who, in addition to being a teacher, is a PALS advisor, and ISOL lab facilitator. The mission of TPHS PALS is “to promote student well being and connectedness by sponsoring all-school events, establishing one-on-one student peer assistance, facilitating campus tours and supporting campus activities.”