EK Challenge Day: Change through understanding

Kent County

KENTWOOD, Mich. (WOOD) — At an early morning assembly recently, East Kentwood students of all grades shouted out their dreams.  

Some dreamed of being Division 1 athletes or Grammy award-winning singers. Others dreamed of their own house, a nice family or a spouse to share their life with. The leader of assembly counted down from three and, in unison, the room erupted with dreams. It was a boisterous sound of what could be. It was the beginning of their challenge.

“It’s really important that you share your dream out loud,” the moderator told the kids.

He said it was a part of changing, part of “being the change.” Everything we see or own started off as someone’s dream, he said.

It was Challenge Day at East Kentwood High School. Part of a three-day national program, it aims to help 375 local students build trust and relationships, ensuring everyone is included and thrives.

“I was really intimidated the first time I walked in and that was three years ago,” senior Lizzie Hackett said.

Now, she’s a group leader for some of the other students who have the first-time nerves she once had.

“It’s honestly one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. Three years and I would do it again in a heartbeat,” Hackett said. “It’s inspiring and humbling and has been one of the most amazing experiences in my career at East Kentwood.”

The day looks similar each year. It starts slow by getting kids comfortable with everyone around them, then drawing them closer by understanding that people who they thought were different share similar experiences. They begin by sharing their dreams or simple favorites like colors or foods.

The topics evolve throughout the day, becoming deeper and more intimate. Assistant principal Lindsay Kimbrough said that growth is evident in the students.

“It’s a mutually beneficial thing,” Kimbrough said. “We have kids, not just the color of their skin or where they come from or the hardships that they’ve had, but the hardships that they haven’t had. And I see those kids grow just as much as the ones that didn’t. I see the adults getting just as much as the kids from this experience. I think it truly humanizes every single one of us and shows us that we have more in common than we don’t.”

They cover heavy topics — death in families from violence, abuse, persecution because of race or religion — and by the end of the day, those students who were nervous or closed off have opened up to kids they didn’t know at the start.

“You don’t realize how hard someone is keeping their emotions in or keeping their struggles in until they’re sitting in front of you explaining it to you, crying, bawling, and can’t stop,” Hackett said.

This is the eighth year East Kentwood has taken on Challenge Day. Though it is on the final year of a three-year grant that has backed the program, both students and administrators believe the school must find a way to continue.

“I think that it would be a shame if this activity, this class wasn’t here in the coming years. I think everyone benefits from it,” Hackett said.

“I used to be devastated or heartbroken when I would leave Challenge Day, almost helpless. That’s there’s so much brokenness and so much need out there, I couldn’t possibly do anything about it,” Kimbrough added. “And I’ve evolved and I feel more inspired now, later in my journey, to do something. Like the students will tell you they feel challenged to change, I feel challenged to make EK not the best high school in the state, but in the country, in the world. We have the best students and the best staff and I see no reason to not take what we have and make it the best, save lives, truly.”

East Kentwood is one of the biggest and most diverse high schools in the state. It has nearly 3,000 students and last year graduated kids from 60 countries. Challenge Day has brought those students on a remarkable journey through conversation and caring. They’ve learned just how connected they really are and how similar their life experiences or dreams may be. And they leave with the knowledge that the only way to create change is thinking differently — together.

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