- FUN FEATURES
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Jill Durso couldn't help but think of her friend, Brendan McQuade, when she joined up to be a part of the Rachel's Challenge at Dodd Middle School.
The program is based in part on the life of Rachel Scott, the first victim of the Columbine High School shootings in 1999. Scott's message of hope and kindness, written in her diary found after her death, has been spread across the nation, encouraging others to try and live a more hopeful and caring life.
Scott's optimism and her desire to help others reminded Durso of McQuade who, despite suffering from an illness, one that eventually led to his death earlier this year, remained upbeat and an inspiration to his friends.
“Brendan was a lot like Rachel,” Durso admitted. “He was always smiling, always kind to other people. I felt like, being a part of Rachel's Challenge would be a good way to try and still honor him.”
Through the course of the year, those members of the Rachel's Challenge, along with the Chain Links Program, participate in a variety of activities designed to promote goodwill and bring the Dodd community together.
Around the holidays, however, it was decided that more needed to be done. Between Dec. 1 and 20, students at Dodd collected thousands of food items to be donated to the Cheshire Food Pantry. Canned goods of all kinds, from carrots to sauce to an assortment of soups, were gathered over the course of the three weeks leading up to Christmas and the school's winter recess, as hundreds of students decided to take part in the collection.
“It really feels great to help people, and it is great to see us come together as a school,” said Hudson Lee who, along with Durso, was a Rachel's Challenge Ambassador for the school. “We didn't expect this much.”
By early last week, more than 4,000 items had been collected, and were stacked on the balcony in the school's cafeteria. When all of the cans were finally collected, students helped stack them in a large truck that then brought the items to the pantry.
“There was very little adult help,” said Dodd Assistant Principal Alberta Landino. “These kids really did the work on their own.”
As a part of kick-starting the drive, Landino explained that members of the Chain Links Club at the school went to each class and explained why the project was so necessary.
“They explained how this was important to the entire community,” said Landino. “Coming from members of the Chain Links Club, that made a difference.”
While collection efforts started off slowly in the early part of December, Durso stated that things began to pick up rapidly and, suddenly, more was coming in than they had originally anticipated.
One of the reasons why so many participated was because the food drive was also billed as a contest of sorts. The team that produced the most donations overall would earn a breakfast, sponsored by the Chain Links, sometime next year.
While students never lost sight of the fact that the drive was designed to help as many people as possible, the contest made the activity fun, Landino explained.
“It wasn't the incentive behind bringing in the food, but it added a little something,” said Landino.
Durso, for one, saw how excited some of her classmates became at the concept of competing with their peers while collecting items.
“I'll be on the bus and I'll hear people saying 'how much did you bring in today?' or 'our team is going to beat yours,'” explained Durso. “People have really gotten into it.”
Yet, the drive hasn't just been about competition, it has also been a good way to promote both the Rachel's Challenge and the Chain Links Club, said Lee.
“People have been coming up, asking if they could join,” said Lee. “It has really been an environment where students are coming together.”
Both Lee and Durso admitted that several students, who come from different backgrounds and wouldn't necessarily be thought of as mingling in the same groups, have joined the Chain Links Club through this activity.
“I really feel like we are carrying out Rachel's message, in a fun way,” said Lee.
For Landino, watching the dedication of the students, and how the school community came together for the drive, was a gift unto itself.
“The effort and enthusiasm of the kids has been amazing,” said Landino. “They know that, when the community is down, they need to stand up, and this is one of the ways in which they are doing that.”