Students learn Rachel’s lesson

“I can already see that it positively affected our students. I’m looking forward to good things.” LORI CHARLET, Gonzales Middle School principal

Most of the middle school students listening to the Rachel’s Challenge presentation weren’t born in 1999 when Rachel Joy Scott was killed while sitting on the grass outside her Colorado high school.

But, the message brought by Rachel’s Challenge presenter Dee Dee Cooper last week moved many of the students to tears.

Organizers hope the message moves the students to take up the challenge to create a chain reaction of kindness — the purpose of the nonprofit Rachel’s Challenge.

The organization, based in Littleton, Colo., Rachel Scott’s hometown, was created by her dad and stepmom and is based on her writings and life. Rachel Scott, then 17, was the first student killed at Columbine High School in 1999, Cooper said.

During the presentations in Ascension Parish, Cooper showed video clips outlining Rachel’s life and death and the messages she left in diaries found after she was killed in the school shootings that left 12 students and one teacher dead. The two shooters, who were students at the school, shot and killed themselves in the melee.

Students from Lowery and Gonzales middle schools heard the 45-minute presentation, which was repeated Aug. 26 and Aug. 27 during nighttime sessions for parents and other residents.

“We had hard-core kids at Lowery crying,” School Board member Richard Brown said before the session with Gonzales Middle School students.

Cooper said Rachel was not perfect and made mistakes, but tried to live the way she wanted others to treat her. After her death, Cooper said, several of her friends and people she had helped talked to her family about the positive influence and legacy she left.

That legacy of kindness, Cooper said, lives on throughout the world, with the program and its message having reached more than 19 million people.

The Ascension students were challenged to: Look for the best in others, dream big, choose positive influences, speak with kindness, and start a chain reaction of acts of kindnesses.

“Your words can hurt and your words can heal,” Cooper said, encouraging the students to think about the words they use.

The Ascension Parish public school system paid $7,200 for the Rachel’s Challenge program, which was brought to the parish through the system’s student services department, School Board spokesman Johnnie Balfantz Jr. said.

After the school assemblies, students took part in training sessions for Friends of Rachel clubs.

Lowery Principal Nicole Grimes and Gonzales Middle Principal Lori Charlet said they were impressed with the response from their students.

“For our school, Rachel’s Challenge means an opportunity to not only continue Rachel’s legacy of kindness, but also the start of a chain reaction of unity, compassion, and understanding for our students, parents, and community, Grimes said.

At Lowery Middle, more than 60 students have committed to joining Friends of Rachel, a club that serves to continue the charge of spreading acts of kindness through the school and community, Grimes said.

“We have started a chain reaction, and have awesome mentors, including pastors, community leaders and teachers, that are dedicated to supporting our students in being successful,” Grimes said. “We know that through these endeavors, we will continue to have a positive impact on student achievement.”

Gonzales Middle trained 109 students in an after-school session on creating a Friends of Rachel chapter.

The Gonzales club meets Thursday to select projects “to spread kindness and start a chain reaction in our school and community,” Charlet said.

Students and residents agreeing to take Rachel’s Challenge signed a banner that is hanging at Gonzales Middle, Charlet said.

Charlet said that during the training, some students talked about being bullies or being bullied by others.

“I can already see that it positively affected our students,” Charlet said. “I’m looking forward to good things.”