Originally published March 6, 2014.
Every day, 160,000 students don't go to school out of fear of being bullied or harassed - a sobering reality that an organization named Rachel's Challenge has set out to change.
The goal of Rachel's Challenge is to "create a culture of kindness and compassion."
Locally, Lincoln Elementary School has taken on this challenge, and school principal Adam Drummond says he has seen a big difference in the culture of the school.
Rachel's Challenge can be summed up in one quote, penned by the organization's namesake, "I have this theory that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion, then it will start a chain reaction of the same. People will never know how far a little kindness can go."
Rachel Joy Scott was a student at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO, and was the first person to be shot and killed on April 20, 1999.
The challenge was started by Scott's father and stepmother, Darrell and Sandy Scott, after the pair found writings and drawings left behind after her untimely death.
Before her death, Rachel was interested in journaling and photography, and she left behind an inspiring group of writings that discussed the power of kindness.
"She had written an essay just prior to her shooting that had ideas and her plan for how she thought life should be," says Lincoln Elementary School Guidance Counselor Mindy Reust, "So in her memory - with her paper and six of her diaries - her family started this organization in order to try to teach kids at schools how to live that legacy of caring, compassion and kindness."
At the elementary level, Rachel's Challenge is meant "to encourage elementary school students to live a life of purpose, do simple acts of kindness and create a KC (Kindness and Compassion) Club to make their school a better place."
The topic of Rachel's death and the Columbine shooting, are not touched on at the elementary level, says Reust,
"I don't think the kids even realize that she is no longer alive," she says. "They just think it is a girl who had a great message.
"We just want to focus on the deliberate acts of kindness and showing how that can have a lasting impact on people."
Reust explains, "Our goal in choosing this program ... we wanted the positive long-term cultural change in the school. We wanted to teach our kids about the deliberate acts of kindness, and doing things because we know that it will make others feel good, and that it creates a chain reaction."
That chain reaction is visually celebrated at Lincoln with the creation of a paper chain that is hung in the main hallways of the building, which Reust hopes will eventually cover the entire school.
"All teachers have a pile or a box full of strips of paper," explains Reust, "and teachers or students or staff members - anyone - when they see an act of kindness, they have the student write their name and the act of kindness that was displayed on the chain (link).
Then they put it together (on the paper chain) in their classrooms. When they get really long, we add it to the chain that is going around the whole school."
As of Feb. 24, Reust said the larger chain had already made it three-fourths of the way around the school.
Lincoln students Keegan Konkle and Haylee Penn say they have both witnessed acts of kindness by others, and reported them on the paper chain. The students say they have demonstrated acts of kindness that others recorded as well.
"I helped somebody out with their math problems," says Konkle.
"I helped my friend Drew in my class with reading, I helped my kindergarten buddy with her math and I held a door open for a man who was in a wheelchair," adds Penn.
Konkle says Rachel's Challenge has taught him a lot about kindness.
"I learned how to be a friend, how to help and not to stand around when somebody is getting bullied," Konkle says.
Penn added that she has learned "that even though you don't always see that there is a problem with someone (if they are having a problem) it is pretty much that you are not looking.
"The more you look the more you see that some people need help."
Konkle says his favorite part of Rachel's Challenge "would definitely be helping others with things that they need."
Since the beginning of the year, Penn says, "I've seen a lot more kids in my class helping out more, and using kinder words than before. Before we were really mean to each other."
"Things are better in our classrooms," the pair notes, "And in other classrooms too."
Lincoln will continue with the program until the school year ends, and Reust says they hope to conclude with a celebration to show students, teachers and parents the visual result of the chain of kindness.
To learn more about Rachel's Challenge, visit rachelschallenge.org.
Complete caption: Jonas Bent (left) and Jayce Keyser, Lincoln Elementary School students, pose with their classroom’s addition to the blue paper chain currently making its way around the school building. The paper chain grows when acts of kindness are recorded on each link, an activity that is part of Rachel’s Challenge.