On Nov. 5, after battling both weather-related and financial stumbling blocks, Rachel's Challenge debuted in Cranston at the Park Theatre, for thousands of middle school students and Cranston community members.
There were two shows during the day for the middle school students and a show in the evening for high school students and families.
According to the program guide, the intent of the presentation is to "inspire, equip and empower" students and members of the community to create positive culture changes in their school, business and community by starting a chain reaction of kindness and compassion.
John Macera, one of the committee members who helped to bring Rachel's Challenge to Cranston, welcomed the audience to the Park Theatre, including several local dignitaries, and thanked the many sponsors who contributed to make the day a reality for the city.
"This day is the result of two and a half years of meetings, grant writing and lots of organization," Macera said.
Named for Rachel Joy Scott, the first person shot during the Columbine High School massacre, Rachel's Challenge begins by showing the audience powerful security camera footage and 911 calls from the April 20, 1999 shootings.
Many of the students watching the morning presentation had not yet been born when the attack took place at the school, acted out by two high school seniors that killed 12 students and one teacher. Twenty-seven were wounded, and the entire event took place in just 22 minutes, making it the worst school shooting in history, shocking even the veteran members of the SWAT team called to the scene.
Many of the adults who viewed the presentation remembered it all too well, and watching it again brought the memories flooding back. As the footage aired, the room was silent other than the occasional sound of quiet crying. The auditorium was well stocked with boxes of tissues, placed strategically throughout the room, and there were professional counselors present during the day as well.
When the footage ended, Jim Kennedy, a Warwick native, took the stage as moderator of the event and began the presentation, noting that he joined the Rachel's Challenge program after seeing it in his own school as a teacher. He now tours the country, helping to share Rachel's story.
He introduced the group to Rachel Joy Scott through a montage of clips.
"Rachel's funeral was broadcast on CNN, and it had the largest viewing audience in CNN history," he said. "Rachel had two older sisters and two younger brothers along with her mom, dad and step-mom. She touched the hearts of many people around the world and she loved to write. She had filled six journals and has inspired millions of students around the world with her writing. You never know the impact your writing will have.”
Kennedy explained a theory that Scott first presented in a school paper.
"I have this theory that if one person can go out of their way and show compassion, it will start a chain reaction of the same," she wrote. At the same time, Scott had written, "This code may seem like a fantasy that can never be reached."
The chain reaction theory is the driving force behind the Rachel's Challenge presentations. Kennedy went on to present the audience with five challenges, each of which he described in detail, and each time relating it to a way in which Rachel Scott touched the life of another person.
The five challenges Kennedy offered to the audience are: to look for the best in others and eliminate prejudice; treat others the way you want to be treated; choose positive influences; speak words of kindness, as words can hurt or heal; and forgive yourself and others.
The creators of Rachel's Challenge believe that creating a safe learning environment and re-establishing civility in schools delivers proactive antidotes to school violence and bullying. Many of the teachers and students in Cranston agree that Rachel's Challenge is just the start of their own chain reaction.
"The presentation is phenomenal, inspiring and moving, and I think all of the kids can relate to something in it," said Sheri Brown, social worker and faculty advisor for Project Respect at Hugh B. Bain Middle School.
The students who viewed the presentation were inspired by Rachel Scott's story.
"Her story was inspirational and it showed how kindness can change the world," said Darien Dinaro, a seventh grader at Park View Middle School.
Eighth grader Megan Scarborough agreed.
"Rachel's Challenge was so surreal and so emotional. I'm not one to cry, but today I was totally in tears," she said. "It is a blessing that we have been able to gather all of the money to do this."
Both Scarborough and Dinaro were among 100 middle school students who were chosen as ambassadors from each school for additional training after the program ended. The students will help to further spread Rachel Scott's message within their schools through Friends of Rachel Clubs (FOR clubs), which, according to Kennedy, are groups of students dedicated to making a positive impact on their schools and making their communities a better place through acts of caring and compassion.
He reminded the students that this was not an anti-bullying presentation, but rather a way of spreading kindness, compassion and respect, a way of helping others and reaching out.
"This is more than a service club," he said. "This is a way of life. We don't curse the darkness, we shine the light."