SPIRIT LAKE — Several brave young ladies raised their hands.
Five of them were chosen to stand before their peers and bare their souls about the unkindness they have suffered through the words and actions of others.
"I would rather have been beaten up physically than mentally because those bruises would have gone away,” said Timberlake High School sophomore Courteney McLaughlin.
Courteney, small in stature with fiery red hair, spoke of the heartache she felt when her father died and the challenges she had fitting in when she had to move schools several times. She's been told losing her dad "wasn't a big deal" and that she didn't belong.
"Things that people have said to me I still think about to this day," she said. "I will always, and I know even when I’m dying, when I’m old, I will think of those no matter what."
Courteney volunteered to share her story during a leadership meeting in the school recently. About 75 students were chosen to be mentors in their school through Rachel's Challenge, a nonprofit that honors the late Rachel Joy Scott, the first victim of the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. Rachel's Challenge works toward bullying intervention, promoting kindness within schools and carrying out Rachel's legacy of compassion. A now-famous quote from Rachel reads: "People will never know how far a little kindness can go."
“Hearing Rachel’s story made me realize that one person can change the lives of everybody on different continents, different states, and anywhere, and one person can go through a hell of a lot and still come out OK," Courteney said to her peers.
"It was one girl that made such a huge impact, one girl and her diaries. Her family took it and made something so big out of it that it stuns me to know that one person can change the lives of everybody."
Rachel's uncle, Larry Scott, brought the challenge to Timberlake to encourage students to promote an atmosphere of kindness and reach out to other students who may be isolated or exhibiting bullying behaviors.
Scott and other members of Rachel's family give presentations around the world to keep the memory and kind heart of his niece alive. They do this while educating teens about the importance of achieving compassionate cultures in their schools and conquering the bullying epidemic.
"They want to go out and hurt other people because they have been hurt and they're not getting help. That's what bullies do," Scott said. "They're very insecure people. They want to hurt other people to make themselves feel better about who they are. People that are hurt want to hurt other people. Not everybody does that, but most people who've been hurt want to go out and hurt other people.
"That's why we have so many people in our world today hurting other people," he continued. "They're hurting themselves, and they don't know what to do about it."
Freshman Blayre Jeffs was another courageous student who shared her story. She has been a target because of her height, and her family actually had to move because bullying was so bad at a previous school.
"I wasn’t safe,” she said. “My parents were scared for my life. I was scared for my life."
When she got to Spirit Lake, she had the good fortune of making some of the best friends of her life. This helped her understand a lesson that Rachel's Challenge proves, that "everybody deserves chances," she said, and that people are allowed to be different.
"I was realizing it’s OK to be yourself, it’s OK if you cry," she said after the leadership meeting. "Rachel’s Challenge was a great experience for me, experiencing the bullying I went through. Just knowing there are other people going through it, there are other people that have to deal with it as well. Everyone needs to be treated with such respect. Everyone’s themselves and you can’t judge people for being themselves."
Scott presented the students with some ideas to start their FOR (Friends of Rachel) Club, a club based on kindness that is springing up in high schools everywhere thanks to the work of Rachel's Challenge.
Some club activities include: High Five Friday, when students spend a good part of their day high-fiving peers as they walk through the halls, even if they don't know the other person; starting a Rachel's Closet, which serves as a food pantry and clothing giveaway for students in need; the Target Letters Project, where students choose a group of people and shower them with compliments, gifts and affection; and a compliments project on Instagram, where students only post positive comments about others and leave out no member of their student body.
"All it takes is a simple smile, a simple, 'Hello,' a simple, 'Hey man, how are you today?'" Scott said. "It might make a difference. Be the change you want to see in this world, and I guarantee that your school will be an amazing school."