Challenge Day teaches Livingston students power of empathy

dyawger@mercedsunstar.comSeptember 24, 2013 

— The Challenge Day program at Livingston Middle School gave 200 eighth-graders more of a sense of belonging as well as compassion and understanding toward others.

Principal William Marroquin said the two-day Challenge Day event is a powerful program that addresses the emotional struggles teenagers experience and teaches skills to overcome them. One hundred students each day participated in the sessions along with 25 adult volunteers.

Debbie Butler, an eighth-grade teacher at Livingston Middle School and the Challenge Day coordinator, said she has been part of every program since it began seven years ago. It goes beyond traditional anti-bullying efforts and ignites a movement of compassion and positive change.

Livingston Police Chief Ruben Chavez has volunteered with Challenge Day for two years and came away moved by the impact of the program held Sept.11-12 this year. He said middle school students are vulnerable to many influences and Challenge Day helps them see the world from a different perspective.

“I had a powerful interaction with the kids,” Chavez said. “Some of these kids internalize so much and you want to relieve the pressure. It’s a great program and I will do it again next year. It helps avoid negative influences.”

Rosa Gomez, a parent, has participated in Challenge Day four times. She said she likes the way the program breaks down stereotypes.

“It teaches things on how to be strong inside,” Gomez said. “It’s very powerful. You can still find ways to be kind and caring to other people.”

Nadia Godoy, 13, called Challenge Day life-changing and said it made her want to help other people.

“It helped me let go of things,” Nadia said. “People who were picking on me had been bullied themselves.”

Kevin Alvarez, 14, said he learned that people have enough going on in their lives and don’t need any more problems. He said he hasn’t picked on anyone since the sessions.

Butler said that seven years ago she saw a TV talk show segment about Challenge Day that made an impression on her.

“I was moved by the student stories about feeling picked on, left out and misunderstood,” Butler said. “This made me think about my own children, the difficult time my oldest son had experienced during his junior high years as well as the students who I work with every day in my classroom.”

Challenge Day gives students a sense of belonging and, more importantly, compassion and understanding toward others, Butler said.

“It reminds us all, adults included, to be better human beings,” Butler said. “What humbles me the most is to get a ‘thank you’ from a student for helping bring Challenge Day to LMS.

“They will usually tell me that they have been bullied for years and now they know things will be very different for them, or students will tell me that they themselves have been the bully and now realize how much they have actually been hurting others and will now act differently.”

Harleen Maitla, 13, said she learned not to hurt others and acknowledged she has been mean to her parents and her sister.

“I should be nice while they’re here,” Harleen said. “I realize I’m not alone and other people have problems, too. I would recommend this to everybody, people older or younger.”

Chavez called Challenge Day a positive thing for the community. He said students come away with a different outlook on life and pledge to be nicer to others. They can see that other students have experienced the same things they have.

Marroquin said the program also helps students who feel like they don’t fit in at school. Each day began with a general session to set the tone, and students broke into small groups to discuss the issues.

“It makes me very proud to see our students using the skills that they have learned at Challenge Day to be the change they wish to see in the world,” Butler said.

Sun-Star staff writer Doane Yawger can be reached at (209)385-2407 or dyawger@mercedsunstar.com.

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