James Kennedy was so moved by the message of Rachel Joy Scott that he made it part of his everyday life.
“Aside from having my two children, it is the most rewarding personal decision I have ever made,” said Kennedy, who took a semester sabbatical from his position as a health teacher at Toll Gate High School this past fall to become a presenter for Rachel’s Challenge.
Rachel Joy Scott was the first student to be killed during the shooting at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. Shortly after her death, her family discovered Rachel’s writings, which explained her belief that “if one person will go out of their way to show compassion, then it will start a chain reaction of the same.”
Her family took that message and created Rachel’s Challenge, a presentation for students, businesses and communities that encourages a culture of kindness and compassion in today’s world.
Kennedy first learned about Rachel over four years ago when he found an article related to Columbine on his AOL homepage. The article led him to the homepage for Rachel’s Challenge. After reading the stories and watching the videos, Kennedy knew this was something special and went to the administration to bring a presentation to Toll Gate.
Tomorrow will mark the fifth time Rachel’s story will be told at Toll Gate but the first time the presentation, Rachel’s Legacy, will be delivered. Kennedy explained that the year one presentation explains her story and her thoughts on kindness, while Rachel’s Legacy explains everything that has happened since her death and what she has left behind.
“We get these kids to realize they have something to leave behind,” said Kennedy.
The Toll Gate administration was highly supportive of Kennedy’s desire to become a presenter for the organization. Rachel’s Challenge is a nationally recognized educational program that has been endorsed by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Since returning to school, Kennedy has also talked about Rachel’s Challenge and kindness in his health classes, spreading the message even after the presentations have ended.
As a presenter, Kennedy has spoken to schools in various states, including New Mexico, Oklahoma, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Since he has returned to full-time teaching, he only does presentations in the New England area, taking personal days when needed. He chose to become a presenter because he was so moved by Rachel’s message and understands the importance of it to today’s youth.
Kennedy has heard experts say that the current generation is growing up without empathy. Kennedy feels educators now have a responsibility to not only teach core subjects, but the importance of caring and compassion.
“If we don’t get this right, that scares me,” said Kennedy. “We cannot afford to get this wrong.”
Melissa Heywood, an English teacher at Toll Gate, has worked with Kennedy to bring Rachel’s Challenge to Toll Gate four times since 2011.
“For me, I feel passionately about what this program does,” said Heywood, who has witnessed a lasting change in students after past presentations. “It’s the life lessons we teach and the connections, those personal connections, that really make a difference in kids’ lives.”
Although Rachel was killed during a mass shooting and the tragedy at Columbine is used as a starting off point for presentations, the presentation does not focus on gun violence.
“Columbine gets the students into it, but it goes on to focus on Rachel and her message,” said Kennedy.
He feels what really makes the story as timely today as it was 14 years ago is that “the Columbine footage is not like watching a grainy World War II video; these kids could be in any town, USA.”
Heywood sees this presentation as an attempt to stop tragic events such as Columbine and Sandy Hook before they occur. “With the climate of schools today, following the recent tragedies, the more we create that family environment, the less likely it is for an event such as that to happen, ideally,” said Heywood.
“What Rachel’s Challenge tries to do is make a lasting impression,” said Heywood, who advises the Friends of Rachel club at Toll Gate along with Kennedy. The group encourages acts of kindness by students throughout the school.
As both a teacher and a presenter for Rachel’s Challenge, Kennedy has seen the effect Rachel’s Challenge has on students firsthand. One story that stands out in his mind is about a Friends of Rachel group in Texas that raised money to buy a car for a classmate who had lost both her parents over the course of her high school career.
“Even after all these years, as a teacher and as a parent, it is hard to sit there and not be moved,” said Kennedy.
Heywood admits that some students are hesitant going into the event, but hearing Rachel’s story changes everything.
“They may start out reluctant, but by the end, when asked who will commit to the five challenges, everyone in the audience has their hand raised,” she said.
While all students will attend one of two assemblies tomorrow morning, the public is invited to attend an open presentation on Thursday, starting at 7 p.m. in the Robert A. Shapiro Cultural Arts Center at Toll Gate.
Invitations to attend one of the three presentations have been extended to all 39 superintendents in the state. Kennedy and Heywood are hoping they will be just as moved and want to have Rachel’s Challenge at their schools.
“We cannot spread this message enough,” said Kennedy.
Heywood agrees, saying that Rachel’s Challenge has “the potential to change a lot of Rhode Island students.”