Counselor Kate Schultz (left), a counselor at Trenton High School, and NeEddra James, a Challenge Day leader, pack up the day’s supplies — which included lunches and lots of facial tissues — after Wednesday’s daylong event.
By TOM TIGANI
Sunday Times Newspapers
TRENTON — Though no sound was heard in the surrounding neighborhood Wednesday, walls were coming down inside Trenton High School.
For the third straight year, students participated in Challenge Day, a one-day program whose mission is to provide young people and their communities with an experiential workshop that demonstrates the possibility of love and connection through the celebration of diversity, truth and full expression.
The 6 1/2-hour program is designed for 100 student participants at a time.
“It was the best experience I’ve had so far in my life,” sophomore Kyle Gill said. “It brings the school together and shows us we’re all alike, no matter what our race or ethnic background is or what we may be going through personally.”
Gill’s experience included exercises in which students lined up and then came out of those lines to gather in groups with others who had endured various situations, such as losing a parent or dealing with a family member engaged in substance abuse.
He said he was surprised at some of the people he saw crossing lines into the various groups.
Students also apologized to those they may have teased in the past. Anxhelo Lalaj, also a sophomore, said until Wednesday he wasn’t fully aware of how bad people could feel because of things that were said to or about them.
Dean Noffsinger, classmate of Gill and Lalaj, said he was somewhat surprised to learn how much others’ life situations could be like his own.
“I learned never to degrade kids by how they look and to treat everyone the same: the way you want to be treated,” Noffsinger said.
All three said they didn’t start out the day as friends per se, but now see each other that way after their Challenge Day experience.
“I was able to admit my wrongdoings, and we were able to solve all our problems and disputes,” said Gill, adding that participating for his second year made it even better.
“This year I could be so much more honest with my peers,” he said.
Another portion of the program allows students to express gratitude for each other’s friendship.
“No matter how down you are in the deepest of moods, there’s always somebody who’ll be your best friend,” Gill said. “In the end we’re all we’ve got.”
THS counselor Angela Siggia, who brought the program to the school last year, said it has become extremely popular program with teenagers due to the MTV show “If You Really Knew Me,” which began airing this summer.
Started by California family therapist and drug intervention specialist Rich Dutra St. John and his wife, Yvonne St. John Dutra, Challenge Day was created “to build connection and empathy, and to fulfill our vision that every child lives in a world where they feel safe, loved, and celebrated.”
“Challenge Day is more than a one-day program,” Siggia said. “It is the spark that ignites a movement of compassion and positive change, known as the ‘Be the Change movement’ here at Trenton High School.”
Details for participating in the movement. which take its name from a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, can be found on the Challenge Day Website.
Siggia said she proposed bringing the program to Trenton because she wishes she’d had something similar in her high school years. School officials were leery at first, but have bought in completely after last year’s event and the positive feedback from participants. This year’s program was supported mostly by a donation from the Trenton Rotary Club, as well grant money.
Trenton Mayor Gerald Brown took part in last year’s event. In a video link on the Challenge Day Website, he called the event “powerful,” and that while he found himself needing the facial tissues organizers keep handy at each event, he hopes one day to be invited back.
Tony Lowe, Challenge Day leader at Wednesday’s event, said organizers don’t believe that drug or alcohol abuse or violence are the biggest problems today.
“We think they’re really symptoms of separation, isolation and loneliness,” he said. “If we can come together, it can be the answer for some of the biggest problems we face.”
Challenge Days have been held worldwide, including places like Canada, Japan, Czech Republic, the Netherlands, as well as Tuesday in Royal Oak. The program is not limited to high schools and has been held at drug treatment facilities and even corporations.
“Most of our participants say they’re going to treat each other differently from this day on,” Lowe said. “They also say their life is changed for the better as a result of Challenge Day.”