BROOKSVILLE — West Hernando Middle School students know who Rachel Scott was, and many of them are ready to accept her challenge. Rachel was the first person killed in the Columbine High School shooting on April 20, 1999.
The students know about her because she was introduced to them at a recent assembly for Rachel's Challenge, a program started by her father, Darrell Scott, who was inspired by an essay his daughter wrote about showing kindness and compassion toward others.
Rachel's Challenge has spread to middle and high schools across the country. Hourlong assemblies are presented by trained speakers who encourage students to be kind to one another, to recognize new students, to go out of their way to help someone who looks sad, to be better citizens.
The program was brought to West Hernando by the school's PTSA, led by president Lorenda Rodriguez and vice president Mary Stone. The program was presented by Doug Brandl, a representative of Rachel's Challenge, who travels the United States presenting the challenge.
"We're trying to teach them kindness and compassion by challenging them to not be prejudiced, to dare to dream, to believe in themselves, that what you give out is what you take in and you just might start a chain reaction," Rodriguez said.
The students were challenged to sign a banner after the assembly as a sign of willingness to try to be kinder. Seventh-grader Elizabeth Bartholomew, 12, signed it and said, "You have to be kind to others. Respect each other. I'm going to be nicer to my brother."
Classmate Kevin Kierzek, 12, also signed. He said he learned to always be kind and make friends. He was impressed by the idea that anyone can be the next one to die at any time. "I'm going to be nice to my younger sister, share things with others, always be the best you can be," he said.
Rodriguez and the PTSA are creating a leadership team, called the Chain Links Club, to keep the momentum of the challenge going. She said 22 teachers have agreed to support the program by recognizing students they catch in acts of kindness. The acts will be written down on paper chain links, made into a chain, that Rodriguez hopes will grow throughout the year and be displayed. She said there will be a Rachel's Challenge rally at the end of the year.
Seventh-grader Mike Stone, 12, is a member of the Chain Links Club. He said some bullying goes on at school, but this program should make a difference.
"I think it affected a lot of people," he said.