Standing on a chair Tuesday morning inside the gym at Gilroy High School, Athletic Director Julie Berggren shared her most embarrassing memory with 90 students, teachers, counselors and community volunteers.
She recalled her senior year of high school. Prom night had just ended. Berggren and her friends came home to change out of their formal wear before going out again. As she exited her room and began to descend down the stairs, one of Berggren’s heels got caught in the carpet.
“I fell face first and slid down the stairs in front of my date,” she said, through an unrepressed grin.
The walls of self-consciousness came tumbling down (collapsing is more like it, thanks to a series of ice-breaking exercises) during Challenge Day – a dynamic, six-hour workshop that came to campus through a $3,200 fundraising effort spearheaded by GHS Education Specialist Ramona Trevino and GHS Activities Director Ondy Gamble. The Gilroy Hilton also donated two rooms for the program’s facilitators, who arrived in Gilroy Tuesday night.
Offered as a service to middle school and high school students in grades 7-12, the nationally based, nonprofit Challenge Day organization is an experiential, one-day program that “demonstrates the possibility of love and connection through the celebration of diversity, truth and full expression.”
In other words, it’s an entire school day where participants address – in a confidential environment free of criticism and judgment – common issues facing adolescents: Cliques. Gossip. Rumors. Teasing. Harassment. Isolation. Stereotypes. Intolerance. Racism. Sexism. Bullying. Homophobia … no topic is off limits.
“How many of you see that stuff going on at Gilroy High?” asked Workshop Leader Gina Pernini Wednesday as she stood amid a large circle of seated participants.
Everyone raised their hands.
Among Wednesday’s attendees were 65 students, 19 community volunteers (parents; church pastors; counselors from Community Solutions and Rebekah’s Children Home) and five GUSD staffers who gave up a sick day to participate. Students whom teachers felt might benefit from the program were given the opportunity to sign up ahead of time, if they wished to do so.
“It’s an emotional and cathartic experience,” said GHS Assistant Principal Christine Anderson, who partook in the workshop. “It’s really going to help kids accept each other and see each other through a different lens.”
Described on its website as “the catalyst for creating positive change in schools and communities,” Challenge Day has served more than 1,000,000 youths in 400 cities, 45 states and five Canadian provinces since 1987. The program “was created to build human connection, bolster empathy and strive toward a world where youths feel safe, loved and celebrated.”
Not that you’d be able to tell what was going on if you walked in during the first several hours Wednesday.
Challenge Day feels more like a happy party, with people fist pumping, butt bumping, creating human roller coasters (a long chain of people sitting on each other’s laps) or square dancing to pop songs reverberating from loudspeakers.
Pausing during a mid-morning break, volunteer Malcolm MacPhail, city chaplain and head pastor at New Hope Community Church, said he jumped at the chance to get involved.
“I’m always thinking of how my life can impact the next generation,” he said. “I can see how it’s breaking down walls that kids build in their lives, and getting them to talk about their feelings.”
As a segue to the core of the program – which gives students the opportunity to open up to their fellow participants in confidentiality about their lives, feelings, fears or anything they might not feel comfortable talking about in a day-to-day setting – workshop leaders use interactive games and high-energy exercises as a vehicle for participants to loosen up and let go of inhibitions.
Watching students and adult volunteers link arms and bust dance moves to pop hits by T-Pain and the Black Eyed Peas, then turn around two minutes later and share their most embarrassing moment with one another – it’s evident how effective the approach can be.
Also effective? Gina Pernini and Evert Villasenor, two of 26 workshop leaders who fly all over the country facilitating Challenge Day programs. They bring with them their own experiences; an impressionable component that sets the tone for open communication and uncurbed expression.
Villasenor, who is Hispanic, shared feelings about the tumultuous inner conflict he experienced as a teenager when his friends would crack racist jokes about Mexicans.
“Every time I heard one of those jokes, I laughed,” he said. “I felt ashamed of myself and was ashamed of the culture I grew up in.”
Pernini, a Chicago native, told students how she struggled for a long time with diet problems and abusing her body after a high school friend made a casual joke about her weight.
When she saw that friend again down the road at her 10-year high school reunion, “the first thing that went through my mind was that comment, and how it changed my life for years,” she said. “That’s not what I want to be remembered for.”
Wednesday marked the fifth time Challenge Day has come to GHS since its first visit in 2001.
Trevino hopes to bring the program back to Gilroy and involve a combined group of students from Gilroy and Christopher high schools. Her face breaks out into a wide smile as she talks about the idea.
“It was a true blessing to be able to host a Challenge Day, and to have the privilege of working with such an amazing group of kids and adults,” said Trevino. “I look forward to being able to watch the students ‘be the change’ and make our high school a wonderful, safe environment.”
Earlier that day during one of the morning’s exercises, Pernini stood on a chair and shouted out questions to participants, who answered popcorn style.
“What are you grateful for?” she said, pointing to one of the students.
“Life,” he replied.
“Give it up for life,” said Pernini.
The gymnasium resounded with applause.