ADAMS TWP — Over the course of four years, students at Mars High School will pass by each other in the halls countless times.
Their interactions will vary, from high fives or hugs to subtle nods. Most commonly, however, there's likely no interaction as classmates pass each other as if they were strangers on the street.
The Friends of Rachel Club, founded this year at schools throughout the district, aims to change that interaction by promoting kindness, empathy and understanding in the Mars community.
“High school is only four years, and I think it's important for us to know a lot of people who come here don't necessarily want to be here all the time,” said Olivia Lockette, a junior. “It's important to make this environment someplace you do want to be.”
The club was formed in the wake of the introduction of the Rachel's Challenge program at the beginning of the year. The program is based on the life and writings of Rachel Joy Scott, the first victim of the Columbine High School tragedy, and works to equip and inspire individuals to replace acts of violence, bullying and negativity with acts of respect, kindness and compassion.
Sophomore Macy Barshick said the assembly introducing the program was inspiring for her and dozens of other students who wanted to see a change happen in the school. Olivia said there was no blueprint for going about implementing a change, leaving it up to students to come up with a plan.
The Friends of Rachel Club was formed, and the initial meeting drew more than 100 students. Students were eventually able to discuss ideas with other school districts that have similar clubs and come up with ways to make Mars a better place.
According to junior Amanda Scurci, that included making kindness cards to put on every locker in the school. Macy said other concepts included signs and a quotation station to write positive messages to encourage interaction between students.
“It's anything we can do to make our school an all around more positive environment,” she said.
One of the club's largest projects came to fruition Friday — the daylong Before the Break Festival. The final day before students departed for the holiday break, it consisted of a morning musical performance as well as various games and activities throughout the afternoon. The goal was simple: promote interaction among students who normally wouldn't talk with one another.
“Sometimes, it's hard to meet new people in the classroom, but once you're outside in a brand new group, it shows you can be friends with anyone,” Amanda said.
Olivia said while simply acknowledging a person or saying “hello” is a good first step, the day was planned with the intention of encouraging students to get to know each other on a deeper level. This, she said, creates empathy and understanding and a more positive overall environment.
“It's less of 'just be nice to them' and more of genuinely getting to know each other,” she said.
“The biggest thing is starting the 'chain reaction,'” Macy said. “Rachel Joy Scott said you may just start a chain reaction with the people among you, and that's kind of the backbone of this entire thing. That's the one thing we kind of stress to people: be nice to one person and maybe it will carry on.”
Although the program admittedly started slowly, both students and staff said they are seeing that change begin to happen.
English teacher Darcy Silbaugh and math teacher Nicole Carter said they became involved with helping the club because they liked the message being presented and the idea of a more positive school atmosphere. Silbaugh said the biggest change she has seen has been an understanding of different perspectives.
“In high school, you're so in your clique and you're set with your group of friends,” she said. “Just meeting other people who you wouldn't normally talk to and realizing how much they have in common with each other ... I think that's huge. It's inspiring empathy that we're all in this together.”
Wesley Shipley, superintendent, said he is happy to see the culture of giving and respect growing in the district's clubs.
“The kids have taken this on with gusto and I'm excited to see them continue to work in this direction,” he said.
For Olivia, working to promote change is something she hopes will have a lasting impact for her and her classmates.
“We want to make sure these four years are going to be a good four years and something you look back on and think, 'Wow, I did a lot here and I met a lot of people,'” instead of having negative feelings, she said.