Westerville students took to heart the oft-quoted suggestion to, "Be the change that you wish to see in the world," through Challenge Day.

Westerville students took to heart the oft-quoted suggestion to, "Be the change that you wish to see in the world," through Challenge Day.

"Challenge Day offers our students a clear and powerful way to be a part of the change they wish to see in our schools, our community and our world," said Stephanie Martin, a teacher at Westerville Central High School.

Since 2007, the district has hosted 49 Challenge Day programs, reaching nearly 5,000 students and involving more than 1,000 adult volunteers.

This year's Challenge Day exercises Dec. 5-8 at all three high schools marked the 10-year anniversary of the program in Westerville.

Martin said two trained facilitators from the Challenge Day organization lead each program day.

"For each program day, we bring together 80-120 students and 20-30 adult volunteers for six hours," she said. "It is eye-opening, emotional, heart-wrenching and inspiring. It changes the way students view each other."

She said the day usually begins with games.

"One of the games is all the kids playing with a giant beach ball," Martin said.

The activities become more meaningful as the day goes on and students get to know one another.

"One particular activity, nicknamed Cross the Line, is done in silence, as participants cross over the line whenever a category that is called out that applies to them, such as violence, stereotypes, etc.," Martin said. "Students realize that they are not alone with their problems when so many others cross the line with them."

She said the final part of Challenge Day invites students to speak up in sharing what they've learned and "how they want to take action to be a positive force for good."

Martin said she teamed up 10 years ago with the late Cindy Crowe, a former school board member, parent and community activist, along with a few other committed individuals, to bring Challenge Day to Westerville.

"We've been bringing it back every year since then," she said. "We felt that Challenge Day would be a way to help our students build stronger connections with their peers at school, because it addresses the issues many of our teenagers face every day, such as alienation, racism, stereotypes, peer-pressure, teasing and bullying."

She said the day "empowers students to break down the walls of separation and increase understanding, acceptance and friendship with one another."

Westerville Central Principal Todd Spinner said he likes the fact students get an opportunity to see other people struggling with the same things they struggle with.

"Everyone is in it together," he said. "We're all here to help support each other."

Jen Kirk, teacher at Westerville North High School, who has coordinated the event at her school for the past 10 years, said, "Challenge Day gives students a way to find connections with other people and build community within our school."

Over the past decade, Challenge Day became a movement in Westerville, Martin said.

"It is an initiative that inspires people to notice what's happening in the world around them, to choose actions that create positive change and to act as living examples of the power of contribution and compassion," she said. "I truly believe that over the years, Challenge Day has helped create a stronger sense of kindness, respect and understanding between students in our schools."

A recent survey of Westerville students who participated in Challenge Day revealed that 63 percent are likely to speak up when they see someone bullied; 72 percent believe their high school is a better place because of the program and 96 percent are more understanding of people's experiences.

Learn more about the nonprofit Challenge Day organization at challengeday.org.

pwillis@thisweeknews.com

@PamelaThisWeek