Breaking ‘the walls of separation’

About 55 teenagers and 30 adult volunteers sat in a huge circle in the gym at Pine Lake Covenant Church in Sammamish last week.

About 55 teenagers and 30 adult volunteers sat in a huge circle in the gym at Pine Lake Covenant Church in Sammamish last week.

“Take a really good look at everybody in this circle,” said Berenice Meza, one of the two leaders of Sammamish Challenge Day 2008, an all-day educational event put on a Redmond nonprofit with sessions on Aug. 20 and 21. “What do you think a person who looks like that or like this could be like?”

At the beginning of the event, most of the participants only knew each other by the brand of their shoes or which clique they belong to in school. By the end of the day, many realized exactly how much they have in common.

“I got to know more about the people that I went to school with and it made me feel like I wasn’t as alone,” said Payan Farahani, an eigth grader at Inglewood Junior High School.

Through a variety of exercises, Meza and her partner Chris Foster exposed issues that many youth experience but often endure without support. They talked about everything from bullying to eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse to suicide.

“We want to break the walls of separation,” Meza said. “It’s kind of an eye-opener – ‘wow, I’m not the only one going through this.’”

The Challenge Day program began over 20 years ago and now travels to cities all over the United States and Canada. It was endorsed by Oprah in November 2006.

Friends of Youth, a Redmond nonprofit agency that serves at-risk teenagers, sponsored the event. Michele Petitti, Friends of Youth Donor Relationship Officer and a Sammamish City Councilmember, was instrumental in bringing Challenge Day to the community to raise awareness of problems affecting local teens.

“Especially for young people new to the area, there’s a lot of teasing and meanness – we even heard about it (at the event),” she said.

Rahul Jobanputra, an eighth-grader at Inglewood, said he’s noticed the same issues.

“There’s some bullying that happens – it sometimes happens to me and I see it happening to other people,” he said. “If people knew what happened when you bully someone, maybe they’d think about it before they bully and they’ll feel bad.”

One of the goals of Challenge Day was to show just how widespread these problems are and motivate people to change them. The facilitators’ most efficient tool to raise awareness was an exercise called “Cross the Line.” Everyone stood in a row while one of the leaders said something like, “If you’ve ever been made fun of because of the color of your skin, cross the line.” Many participants were stunned by the results.

“Every time that someone crossed the line, there would be at least one person with them,” said Jameson Knopp, an eighth-grader at Renaissance School of Art and Reasoning. “A lot of people had attempted or considered suicide, and it completely changed their point of view and they found out they weren’t alone.”

Petitti said “Cross the Line” marked a definite shift in the group dynamic.

“After that exercise is when people are feeling the closest,” she said. “By the end of the day, everyone was high energy, conversing with people they didn’t know.”

Petitti hopes to continue new bonds by getting the Challenge Day participants together at each of their schools.

“If they want to advocate for each other and be friends…then we’ll try to find support for them to do that,” she said.

At the end of the event, participants and volunteers left the circle and as they left the gym together, they passed a hand-drawn banner that declared, “No more separation, no more isolation, no more loneliness.”