When she was in middle school, Keyona Williams was picked on and bullied.
A classmate in the eighth grade would constantly make fun of her, belittling her appearance. When she couldn’t take it anymore, Williams got into a fight with the student, was slapped hard and lost the fight.
Other classmates joined in bullying and attacking her. She became afraid, and she felt embarrassed and ashamed about what was happening.
Because Williams had a secret.
She never told her classmates and friends that her mother was a victim of domestic violence. She began to feel weak because her classmates were placing their hands on her.
“I became afraid of that embarrassment that was that slap,” she told a gymnasium full of Logan, Lincoln and Longfellow middle school students Thursday morning. “I started telling myself I was just like my mother.”
Williams was able to change things and make a difference when she was exposed to Rachel’s Challenge, a program founded by the father of Rachel Scott, one of the victims of the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. Before her life was taken, Rachel wrote about her philosophy to start a chain-reaction of kindness and compassion in her school and community that would then spread out to the world.
“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,” she wrote in her diary. “People will never know how far a little kindness can go.”
That philosophy is the basis of Rachel’s Challenge, which has been heard by 21 million students around the world. A motivational speaker for the organization, Williams was in La Crosse to speak to middle school students and help train them on ways to incorporate Rachel’s philosophy into their daily lives and make an impact in their schools and community.
The members of the Lincoln Middle School student council were the spark behind the event, Lincoln counselor Rick Blasing said. After last year’s Compassion Project, council members decided to invite Rachel’s Challenge to La Crosse as a continuation of that program, and they received a $3,700 La Crosse Public Education Foundation grant to support the event.
Students learned intervention strategies to help them interject themselves between a bully and someone being picked on and also brainstormed projects they could do at school to show kindness, compassion and inspire their fellow students.
But the training was at its most emotional when students shared their own stories and said what Rachel’s story meant to them. Students told their classmates how draining it is to fight with siblings and family members was, how hard it was to be bullied because of their weight or appearance, and the toll bullying takes when friendships are lost or shattered.
One student spoke of how hard it was to be teased and taunted in the hallways, and how much it hurt when her friends turned on her. The student spoke of the cruel power of inside jokes and taunts, and how she was able to get through it all due to the support of her mother.
All of the students who shared their personal experiences spoke of how inspiring Rachel’s story was and how it made them want to make a difference in their own and others lives. One student even spoke about how it made him want to apologize for the mean things he had done to his classmates in the past.
“It was inspirational,” Alex Gavrilos, a seventh-grader at Logan Middle School, said in an interview after the program. “It changed the way I think about how people are bullied. I want to help people more.”