HERMON, Maine — Though Rachel Joy Scott died about the time students at Hermon Middle School and Caravel Middle School students were infants or toddlers, her words and actions continue to resonate through a program created by her father.
“Rachel’s Challenge” is based on the legacy the teenager left behind after two teenage gunmen stormed her school, killing 12 students and one teacher and injuring 21 others. Rachel Scott was the first student to die in the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado on April 20, 1999, considered the worst such incident in the nation’s history.
“My definition of compassion is forgiving, loving, leading and showing mercy,” Rachel wrote in an essay six weeks before her death. “I have the theory that if one person can show compassion, then it will start a chain reaction of the same. People will never know how far a little kindness can go.”
Her words sparked an international movement based on her challenge to start a chain reaction by performing acts of kindness, compassion and respect. The idea is get young people — and adults — to change the way they treat others.
Christopher Hill, a Rachel’s Challenge presenter, said he never had the chance to meet Rachel because she died before he moved to Colorado.
What he knows about her came through Rachel’s brother and his close friend Craig Scott and Rachel’s father, Darrell Scott, who in 2000 founded a program in Rachel’s name that has been seen by millions of students in 50 states and several foreign countries.
As he learned over time, Rachel was the kind of girl who made it a point to be the first to extend a welcome to a new student at school and often the first to stick up for someone who was being picked on — even if the bullies were far larger than she.
After she died, her family received calls and letters from some of the young people whose lives she touched, and in at least one case saved, by letting them know they meant something and counted.
On Tuesday, Rachel’s Challenge and her legacy were shared though words, pictures and video with an estimated 550 middle-schoolers during assemblies during the school day Tuesday when the event came to Hermon High School.
About 550 fifth- through eighth-graders from the Hermon and Carmel middle schools and from the Suzanne M. Smith School in Levant attended during the school day, said Hermon Middle School guidance counselor Jill Churchill, who did much of the preparation work along with her Caravel counterpart, Leslie Smith. In addi-tion, 50 students identified as leaders underwent training on how to spark a Rachel’s Challenge movement locally.
Despite less than stellar weather, another 300 to 400 people, including parents, heard the message during an evening presentation, also at Hermon High.
During the talk, Hill described Rachel as a girl who believed with all her heart that even simple acts of kindness and compassion can change and even save lives.
A case in point was a young man named Adam whom Rachel defended when he was picked on because of his mental and physical disabilities. Adam later told her family that she saved his life. He had been considering suicide before she stuck up for him.
Susan Sides of Levant was among the parents who attended. She said she and her daughter Elise, a middle school student at Caravel, both read “Rachel’s Tears: The Spiritual Journey of Columbine Martyr Rachel Scott,” based on her six diaries. Both were moved by Rachel’s story and excited to learn Rachel’s Challenge was coming to the area.
“It’s an awesome program,” she said. “It’s just like they say, even a simple act of kindness can change the world.”
Also moved was Abbie Fits, a sixth-grader at Caravel.
“I learned being kind to people is a big part of life,” she said. “I was actually crying through the presentation on and off. A lot of my friends were, too.”
School officials hope this week’s talks are just the start.
“They encourage you to create a Chain Reaction Club,” Churchill said Tuesday, adding that the purpose of the clubs is to come up with activities or projects members can take on to change their school’s culture for the better.
“For kids to learn, they have to feel safe,” she said. While she said student safety has not been a major issue locally, she noted that all schools had room for improvement.
Sometimes less obvious things such as feeling excluded or being the subject of rumor or gossip can “just make the school an uncomfortable place to be,” she said. “We want school to be a place that kids want to be every day.”
For information, visit www.rachelschallenge.org.