KANELAND—Dylan Calabrese is an 11-year-old sixth-grader at Harter Middle School, and a plays on the 11U Kaneland Black Knights team of the Kaneland Youth Football League.
Two weeks ago, Calabrese and some of his teammates strolled into the Rachel’s Challenge presentation in Kaneland High School auditorium, wearing their football jerseys.
It’s a moment that Calabrese still remembers.
“I felt pretty proud because we were doing a good thing and we were showing respect to everybody there,” he said.
Calabrese’s teammate and fellow sixth-grader, Alex Slou, 11, walked into the auditorium knowing the team sent a serious message.
“Wearing our jerseys was like showing that that we were not messing around with coming there,” Slou said.
Coaches from KYFL, a non profit sports organization that competes competitively, made the decision to cancel the Black Knights football practice last Tuesday in order for the teammates to attend the Rachel’s Challenge presentation, a national program based on the inspirational writings of Rachel Joy Scott, who was one of the students killed during the the Columbine High School shooting on April 20, 1999.
According to Gary Brown, head coach of 11U Kaneland Black Knights, attending the event was “totally optional” and not required of the Black Knights team; however, 12 of the team’s 22 players were in attendance for Rachel’s Challenge.
Brown called having at least one league team representing at the event a “no brainer,” and said that there have been some bullying issues that have happened at all school levels and even within the KYFL.
“It was good for us to go and listen to somebody that actually has the foresight to really understand what it was like be somebody that’s on the outside or would help new kids or someone who wasn’t exactly the same as them,” Brown said. “And how (Rachel) handled it. And I thought it was a great idea. And I think it would help them all.”
Joe Partoll, assistant coach for 11U Kaneland Black Knights, spoke positively of the coaching staff’s call to forgo practice for the event.
“It was good to do, considering the effects of bullying and how its become more and more predominant in our school district,” Partoll said. “I’ve noticed it through the media and also amongst boys on our football team. Not necessarily against each other, but just listening to the boys talk and you can hear stories of bullying.”
Partoll’s son, Michael, a sixth-grader at HMS, said he has seen of bullying amongst football and soccer team players—“It could be like, ‘Oh, on Saturday, we’re gonna win,’ or like kind of nudging each other. Stuff like that”—and has thought of how people could view the “smack talk” in different ways.
“You think it’s okay (to say those things), but it kind of might offset other people,” he said.
Ken Rogers, assistant coach of 11U Kaneland Black Knights, hopes the youth football players will learn a particular lesson from Rachel’s Challenge.
“I hope that they picked up not to prejudge,” he said.
Thomas Eberhardt, a sixth-grader at HMS, picked up some lessons from the Rachel’s Challenge program.
“Keep a diary and don’t take life for granted,” he said.
Calabrese learned some lessons from the presentation, too.
“It’s like not just about having your own couple of friends,” he said. “It’s about expanding your life and reaching out to others.”
Calabrese said he has an idea of what he will now do differently from this point forward.
“I’m probably gonna just give others more of a chance—like hanging around and stuff,” he said.
Meanwhile, despite missing a Tuesday practice that normally includes running, stretching and blocking, the 11U Kaneland Black Knights team still won its game last Saturday.
“We haven’t lost one yet,” Brown said. “We’re 7 and 0, so we’re doing OK.”
Rachel’s Challenge inspires inside the classroom, too
Changes are happening at Kaneland Harter Middle School.
That’s in part because this month, 90 students and 12 staff and guests met for FOR (Friends of Rachel) Club training. The club does kind acts and is inspired by Rachel Joy Scott.
The training took place after the “Rachel’s Challenge” presentation during the school day at Harter Middle School on Oct.1.
According to Brenda Johnson, Kindness Campaign partner, students identified problems within the school, including gossip, rumors, bullying and racial intolerance. Students learned strategies for interacting with someone engaging in bullying or someone being bullied, like “pep talk,” “run interference” and “blow the whistle.”
Students also learned about the Chain Links Project, where kind acts of individuals are noted on a paper chain. The project is based on one of Scott’s ideas.
“I have this theory that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion, then it will start a chain reaction of the same,” Scott wrote. “People will never know how far a little kindness can go.”