Imagine you’re walking into Panera Bread to enjoy a breakfast sandwich and an iced coffee on a Saturday morning in late May. As you enter, though, you are halted by a group of middle school girls all dressed in the same organization’s t-shirt. Your first thoughts may likely be… what are these kids going to ask me for? How much are they are going to request I donate to their cause?
What would you do if these kids then offered to purchase your entire breakfast for you? Would you skeptically ask them what the catch is? Would your mouth hang open in amazement? Would you believe that this group of kids has no other purpose than to spread a message of kindness?
Every day we are bombarded with stories in the media of bullying, teen suicide, and school violence. There’s an organization out there that’s working to change that narrative. It’s a group consisting of very special middle schoolers, like the ones who showed up at one of our West Akron Panera Bread cafes on the last Saturday in May to surprise unsuspecting guests with free meals, gift cards and other gestures of benevolence.
These students are part of Rachel’s Challenge, an organization with chapters across the country that works to prevent violence and promote the importance of kindness in schools. The movement is inspired by a story of tragedy that we are all familiar with. Rachel Scott was the first student lost in the 1999 Columbine school shooting. She was killed while eating lunch outside on the school lawn with one of her friends. After she died, many students reached out to her parents with stories of how Rachel touched their lives with her small acts of kindness, even helping to prevent a fellow student from taking his own life. Rachel’s story is now the foundation for the organization’s mission to make schools safer, more connected places where bullying and violence are replaced with compassion and respect.
For 40 students at Fairlawn’s Revere Middle School, Rachel’s Challenge is an important part of their school lives. The group meets monthly and discusses topics like anti-bullying, violence, and how to respect others who are different. The student members gather toys and gifts for foster kids in the area during the holidays and work all year to fundraise for their annual Pay It Forward event through which they perform random acts of generosity for strangers. On this one day, the students spread out across the Akron area purchasing groceries for people, supplying gift cards to restaurants, paying for haircuts, and distributing cold bottles of water to people leaving the gym. They also buy breakfast for our fortunate Panera Bread guests.
This year the students at Revere raised a record-breaking $4,000 to make their Pay It Forward day possible.
A program proponent in a video featured on the Rachel’s Challenge website (www.rachelschallenge.org) mentions how adults sometimes write off the young kids of today as lost and lacking respect. Adults often feel the need to tell kids what they can’t do instead of giving them a purpose and showing them what they can do.
Jeanette Geer is not one those adults. She is the Rachel’s Challenge advisor at Revere, and she is also mom to middle-schooler, Tate, who will be entering the 8th grade this fall and is an active member of the group. Jeanette believes the Rachel’s Challenge program filled a necessary gap for middle schoolers looking to understand the world around them and the stories they hear in the media.
Geer also noted the “domino effect” that is incited by the group saying, “At Panera, we had one lady give all our students hugs in return for their acts of kindness, and a group of old men asked the kids what they were doing, and when the kids replied that they were with Rachel’s Challenge and revealed what they had planned, the men decided to buy all the kids their breakfasts.”
The kindness was contagious.
So what do you have to do to get 40 middle school students up early on a weekend to spend their personal time doing kind deeds for others? It turns out, not much. All they need it is the opportunity. Rachel’s Challenge is providing them that opportunity and is doing so for students across the country as it works to transform schools and communities into positive, collaborative, and uplifting environments. And if there’s any question of what we can all learn from a collection of young kids, the answer is…perhaps a lot.