New Albany Middle School eighth-graders spent last week learning more about themselves and each other during the school's first Challenge Day program.

New Albany Middle School eighth-graders spent last week learning more about themselves and each other during the school's first Challenge Day program.

"A lot of the kids have said they never realized that people carry around so many things," said Elizabeth Gonda, middle school dean of students.

She said students learned they weren't alone with their cares and concerns and that others "worry about homework and about what their parents and friends think," too.

Challenge Day was founded in 1987 by high school teacher and coach Rick Dutra-St. John and his wife, Yvonne St. John-Dutra. The vision for Challenge Day is to ensure "every child lives in a world where they feel safe, loved and celebrated," according to the program website.

Gonda said New Albany students saw the program featured on the cable television channel MTV and asked how they could bring it to New Albany.

"Our first step was the anti-bullying walk we held in conjunction with the high school's Peace Week last year," Gonda said. We raised $6,000 there to support the effort."

She said district officials knew it could cost up to $18,000 to bring the Challenge Day program to New Albany.

Three sponsors stepped up to help fund the program: Ultimate U Total Health donated $4,000 and in-kind support; Huntington Bank donated $3,000; and Smoot Construction donated $1,000. All three were expected to be recognized at the Jan. 28 school board meeting.

Gonda said 25 to 30 volunteers also came into the school to participate in one of the three-day sessions, led by representatives from Challenge Day.

Gonda said students worked in groups of 100 and smaller groups, answering questions about themselves and listening to what others said.

In one of the large group exercises, Gonda said, students and adults were lined up side by side and were asked a series of questions. Each time a participant could answer a question in the affirmative, they took a step forward.

"The facilitators ask if you've been alone, then you move forward," Gonda said. "They ask if you've had a family member struggling with a life-threatening illness or if you've been made fun of for your weight or your religion and (the students) see who else crosses with them."

Zoe Guirlinger, owner of Ultimate U Total Health, visited the school last week and said she was amazed to hear young people talking about the program.

"My niece said the kids are all talking about it, what a life-changing experience it is and how many of them are making up with friends they've been fighting with for years," Guirlinger said. "I think that we are in a time where we need -- now more than ever -- the skills to be able to relate to one another, with empathy, care, compassion and concern.

"These are skills people need to be happy and to thrive in this new economy. We have every reason to help these kids heal and prepare for thriving in life."

Gonda said 95 percent of the middle school's 368 eighth-graders participated in the Challenge Day activities. It was offered as an optional program with a fee of $10 per student collected to help provide funding for a future program.

Gonda said on Jan. 28, teachers and students met to talk about ways to maintain the momentum created by Challenge Day.

"We need to determine what we do next to help support the program and to keep the feeling continuing," Gonda said.