Usually, at 5 am on any given Monday morning, the UnCollege fellows are fast asleep, and the house is still and dark. This Monday morning was different. One fellow was up and preparing for a day of volunteering that would change her life. This Monday, I went along with Ilkin to a volunteer opportunity called Challenge Day. We were on a bus heading away from the Gap Year House before 6 am, before the sun had begun to rise. It would be a long ride. We were going outside of the city and would have to catch three buses.
On the way there, we chatted about everything from homelessness to the state of the world to the sunrise as it came up over the horizon, but the conversation always came back to one thing: Challenge Day. The opportunity to volunteer at Challenge Day had come by way of recommendation to both of us from Jon, UnCollege Program Specialist and Ilkin’s coach. Jon worked for Challenge Day for 10 years, and using his experience from that setting, he developed the orientation program for UnCollege.
Challenge Day is a program designed to help students build empathy and compassion for each other by getting them to be vulnerable and real with one another.
As color started to come into the world with the slow ascent of the sun in the sky, on the second bus of the day, Ilkin told me that she was nervous. We anticipated that it would get emotional at some point and that we would be expected to share our personal stories with others, the way we had when Jon led us through the UnCollege orientation only a few weeks ago. We also knew this would be different. This would be deeper.
“I want to be there to help them, but I don’t really want to share my story. I just want to listen.” She said. “The idea of sharing makes me nervous.”
But she knew she would have to.
As the bus went over the Golden Gate Bridge and we left San Francisco behind us, the sun took its place in the sky, fully shining, the colors of sunrise dissipating. Ilkin snapped a quick picture using her phone and then returned to talking about how this was way outside of her comfort zone.
Before Ilkin could feel ready for it, we arrived at Mill Valley Middle School. We got there just in time to receive an abridged training session and prepare for the kids who were outside the gym, waiting to enter. We would be working with the middle school’s entire 8th grade class.
The day started out high-energy, with the adults and kids playing team-building games and doing improv with a partner or two. Then, after some time playing games and getting to know the kids, each adult volunteer was assigned 4-5 eighth graders. This became that volunteer’s “family group.”
There were two Challenge Day leaders, one male and one female, and they both took some time to share with all of us their personal stories.
The room went from buzzing to hushed as the stories began to touch on emotions we had all felt, or feared we would feel one day. Then, slowly, tears rolled down cheeks, and sniffles began to break the hushed silence around the kids and adult volunteers. The empathy the kids had for the leaders was palpable and incredible. I wanted most and deepest in my soul for none of them to lose that. For none of them to be hurt so badly or so many times or chided by the world for their feelings so much that they would let that flame die.
Once the leaders were done sharing, we got into our family groups again and were given two minutes to share our own stories, whatever we wanted to share. The kids in my group were relatively unscathed, or they didn’t share much. Across the room, I saw Ilkin’s family group exchanging a lot of hugs. There were tears on that side of the room, more tears than on my side. Ilkin seemed to be handling it well.
After we went around our family groups and everyone had shared, it was time to do an activity called “cross the line.” In this activity, there were two lines made on the ground with tape, and everyone stood on one of them. The leaders would say something, and if that thing had happened to you or affected your life in any way, you crossed the second line of tape and looked back at everyone still on the other side, and those people held up the “I love you” sign. The point of this is to get even more vulnerable. That way, their classmates could see how much they had been through, and that these eighth graders could know that no matter what they have gone through, they are not alone. This was the most emotional part of the day by far. The adult volunteers participated in this, as in every activity, but we were also there to support the kids who were dealing with a lot. Ilkin did a great job of reaching out with a hug or a hand for everyone who was hurting, even though she herself was being affected by the emotion of the exercise.
Then, we got back into our family groups and shared again. The kids were more open than before and cried more openly as they shared things they hadn’t felt comfortable sharing earlier. From there on out, after some comforting, the day became more upbeat again and ended on a lighter note. After a brief end-of-day volunteer meeting, Challenge Day was over and we embarked upon the trip home.
A few days later, I got coffee with Ilkin to ask her a few questions about her experience. Since the volunteers hadn’t been around each other much during the course of Challenge Day, I wanted to get her side of the experience as well.
Me: What was your first impression of what you would be doing?
Ilkin: My mindset going in was to volunteer and help out, I didn’t think I would get that affected by it. I walked in thinking it would just be a really long but nice day.
Me: What was the reality of the experience?
Ilkin: The truth was that I came out of there a changed person and it ended up being one of the best memories I have of UnCollege so far.
Me: Did your family group share a lot? How did you deal with it?
Ilkin:Yes, they shared a lot for sure. It got really emotional fast. We had such a connection that it really felt like a family, and after sharing, we all hugged every time. I feel like my group was very strong. If I had done this in middle school there’s no way I would’ve opened up like that. I think these kids were really brave and I thought it was really awesome that they just shared with us like that.
Me: Did you connect with anyone on a personal/emotional level? What were they like? Why did you connect?
Ilkin: I did connect emotionally with one girl who I knew I would have been friends with if I were in 8th grade. There weren’t any words involved, but I just felt this connection. It’s hard to explain.
Me: How did you help your family group? How did they help you?
Ilkin: I just helped them by being there. Everyone told me how brave I was for coming there to help them. I helped them by being present there. They needed that presence of a young adult to help them with what they were going through.
Me: How did the “cross the line” activity affect you?
Ilkin: It was the hardest activity to do and it was all building up to that. It was big. Seeing the kids’ reactions was bigger than my own problems and how it affected me, and I sort of forgot that I had my own problems. I felt like it was a really useful thing for the kids, to see how the people they see every day have been through so much.
Me: How did they respond to you as an adult volunteer?
Ilkin: They responded to me well because there was enough of an age difference that I could understand them and we could relate to each other, but there was still an element of respect to it. Being honest and real also opened up my family group a lot because it made me just like one of them.
Me: What changes did you see in the entire room of kids that you also saw maybe within your own group?
Ilkin: Everyone seemed more connected to each other and making an atmosphere of acceptance. One girl wasn’t into it, didn’t want to do it and was just sitting and crossing her arms, and by the end she opened up so much and was so willing to help her classmates. It was really cool to see that transformation in her.
Me: What are your thoughts now that it’s over? What were your thoughts immediately afterwards? How are they different?
Ilkin: Immediately after, I didn’t think doing it again would help me. I could only think about how hungry and exhausted I was. But now that I see how it has been affecting me and changing me, I want to do it again. Why wouldn’t I? How many lives could I change? Waking up and going and doing something that matters for a day and being able to look back on that is just amazing. I can say I did something that mattered that day and was bigger than just me.
Me: Now, for the biggest one: What did you learn?
Ilkin: I learned that no matter what age you are, everyone has stuff going on in their life that they are struggling with. No one person’s problems are worse than any other person’s, and we’re all in this together.
Me: Is there anything else that you have to say about your Challenge Day experience?
Ilkin: I want to say how grateful I am that I have Jon as a coach because he knew me so well and knew that I would gain something from this and that it would be useful to me. Even though I wasn’t so sure about those things myself, he knew me that well, and now, this is one of my best memories of UnCollege so far, and I want to do it again.