If you really knew me you'd know that I don't like to hug strangers. But on March 6 at I hugged a whole bunch of strangers—something like 120 strangers, give or take a few, as part of a challenge.
I also did a lot of jumping up and down; opened my big yap and shouted some pre-rehearsed phrases; and wore out my hand slapping high-fives. They told me to dress casually, but I didn't quite grasp the idea that gym attire would have been perfectly appropriate. Oh yeah, and I cried. Though it's a rumor they make you cry, it's not required, but in these Challenge Day programs I'm told most people do end up shedding a tear or two.
Challenge Day isn't about finding out how many new shoulders you can wrap your arms around. It's about kids. It's about letting teenagers know they aren't the only ones in the world whose family has had some sort of violence in it. Someone else's uncle may have been killed by a drunk driver, too. The boy who has the macho dad needs to know he isn't the only young man who is terrified of "coming out" to a parent.
The girl wearing the XL on the back of her t-shirt isn't the only kid on the block who has heard "fatso" shouted at her as she crossed the street. And more than one of those kids learned they weren't the only one who has a father who is cheating on the mom, and the children know it, and don't know what to do about; even though there's nothing they, as children, can do about it.
And in the process of learning they aren't the only ones, they also learn that the skinny girl doesn't like it when people suggest she's anorexic when she's not. Isn't it a compliment to tell someone she's so skinny she must be anorexic? No, says the skinny girl. It hurts.
I was one of a couple dozen Challenge Day adult volunteers made up mostly of teachers, staff and parents—and a couple of recent school alums—who went through all the same exercises as the students. Exercises designed to break down barriers and give everyone the sense that it's OK to open up and tell your story by doing silly or awkward things for the better part of the day.
This was for Challenge Day at Cupertino High School. Challenge Day is a paid-for program—not a cheap one either—that comes into schools for a full day to take students through a series of exercises to help youth recognize that no matter what challenges they may face in school, among their peers or anywhere out in the big, scary world, that there is someone out there who cares, who will listen. And there are places where they can go to feel "safe, loved and celebrated," as Challenge Day puts it.
It's facilitated by two Challenge Day staff members—on our particular day we had Gina Pernini and Evert Villasenor—and we adults collectively took on their mantra to help the kids learn to Be the Change, the program's movement of "compassion and positive change."
It begins with a series of exercises that are, simply put, awkward. When I said I hugged a bunch of strangers, I did. We were briefed before all the students came in about the basics of what to expect, do and say during the day, but I've been sworn to secrecy so I can't tell you everything.
I really did swear to not take notes or photographs during the 6-1/2 hours, and for a journalist that's counter-intuitive, but I get it. I am being allowed to share my experience of the day with you because the message of the program is an important one: Be the Change.
But you'll just have to wait until tomorrow to read more. To be continued...