Where were you on April 20, 1999?
Rachel Joy Scott sat outside Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., completely unaware that she was about to become the first of 13 people killed in the deadliest high school shooting in American history.
Students from McCormick Middle School and Wellington High School learned Scott’s story Dec. 8 at the Patricia Lindley Center from speaker Chris Mowery. He works for Rachel’s Challenge, an organization formed in Scott’s memory.
Wide-eyed students watched video and audio accounts of that terrible day in 1999, which included the recollections of Rachel’s brother, Craig Scott, who hid under a table as he watched friends die all around him.
Rachel’s penchant for big thinking and a desire to help others led to the creation of the organization following her death. It travels the country speaking out about the consequences of bullying, taking loved ones for granted, and ways to build big ideas into real world actions.
She penned an essay just days before the shooting that asked her peers to show compassion toward those different than them and to start a “chain reaction” of kindness.
“I was working as a youth pastor when I started sharing Rachel’s story with my students,” said Mowery, explaining why he feels the Scott family’s story is important to spread. “But I wanted to do more. I knew I could do more.”
Rachel’s father, Darrell Scott, spoke to a Congressional House Judiciary Committee shortly after his daughter was killed. Shortly after that, he founded Rachel’s Challenge.
In the years since, the organization has spoken to 27 million students in 14 countries, 30 states, and 17,000 schools, Mowery said.
He has been a Rachel’s Challenge speaker for a little over three years, but 11 years ago he decided to name his first child Rachel Joy after learning of the teenager’s inspirational words.
“I was just so impacted by her story,” he said. “I sent an audition for a speaker role in to Rachel’s Challenge and here I am now. We model the presentations after what her dad did right at the outset. It’s remain largely unchanged since.”
Rachel’s Challenge consists of five points: looking for the best in others, dreaming big, choosing positive influences, speaking with kindness, and starting your own chain reaction.
Mowery said many people, especially children, are often afraid to express how much words hurt them until too much time has passed.
“People wear masks,” he said. “They don’t let on how something affects them. Sometimes your friends say things, and you feel pressured to treat it as no big deal, but it hurts and eats at you. They tend to keep that hurt to themselves. Many times when a kid commits suicide, everyone’s reaction is that they had no idea he or she was feeling that way. I know that happened here recently.”
He said the term “thin-skinned” is used too often to not fully address real and valid emotional concerns.
“Just because you don’t think something is hurtful doesn’t mean you should automatically assume no one else should feel that way,” he said. “You don’t know their story.”
Students seemed to take the presentation to heart.
“I think this is important because everyone needs to see how words can make a difference,” said seventh-grader Colton Campbell. “It’s easy to joke in a mean way and not notice that it’s hurting someone in more ways you can think of.”
“Some people think a joke ends when the words end, but people can take it very seriously after that,” said eighth-grader Jayden Skinner. “It really knocks people down and the other person keeps thinking it’s a joke.”
The presentation ended by asking all in attendance to think of someone they love and to have a face-to-face conversation with that person about much they’re appreciated.
“Anything can happen,” said Skinner. “Someone you care about could be gone in an instant. It’s a hard thing to always remember. I want to dream big and start a chain reaction.”
Later in the day, WHS students participated in training exercises on how to exercise compassion and spot instances of bullying.
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.
Photos by Jonathan Delozier | Wellington Enterprise Speaker Chris Mowery shows a slide of Rachel and Craig Scott during a Rachel’s Challenge presentation at the Patricia Lindley Center. Rachel was the first person killed in the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. Craig was featured on video accounts shown to Wellington students in which he spoke of his experience losing a sister and watching friends be gunned down in cold blood.