Novel 'Diversity Affirmation Education Fund' Founded by Falls Church News-Press' Nicholas F. Benton Delivers 'Challenge Days' Program to Local High School

    FALLS CHURCH, Va., April 3 /PRNewswire/ -- There were probably more hugs
 passed out around George Mason High School in Falls Church, Virginia, during
 two days last month than in the previous two years or longer. That's because
 almost the entire junior class at the school participated in two full days of
 special training, known as "Challenge Days" aimed at breaking down barriers to
 compassion and caring among the students, overcoming both hidden and overt
 forms of discrimination and disrespect.
     The program was made possible by funds from the innovative "Diversity
 Affirmation Education Fund" set up through the non-profit Falls Church
 Education Foundation and named for Falls Church News-Press owner/editor
 Nicholas F. Benton, who founded it with a large personal donation a year ago.
     The "Challenge Days" program that has been conducted at schools in the
 U.S., Canada and abroad for over 600 days a year, was brought to George Mason
 High for the first time in its history last week, and Assistant Principal Tim
 Guy told the News-Press he hopes it will set a tone for the entire coming
 year.
     "We chose to have this program presented to almost our entire junior
 class, our 'rising seniors' as we like to call them, in hopes that its impact
 will carry over when the students become seniors next fall, and will set the
 tone for younger students and the entire student body," Guy said.
     The program, he said, "did a good job" helping to establish "a strong,
 caring community within the class." The true test, he added, "will be how it
 plays out with the Class of `07."
     A student who attended one of the two days (half the class and faculty
 took part one day, and the other half the next), junior Ben Ballou, said the
 program "was useful for a lot of people" because it made them aware that more
 discrimination was going on at the school than they realized.
     "It's not one type of discrimination more than any other," he said, "But a
 lot of little discriminations that build on each other and lead to the
 formation of cliques and the exclusion of others."
     He said that while Mason High "does not have as much discrimination as
 some other schools," it is still there, and it was insightful for many
 students to see it, how much more prevalent it is than they thought, and to
 address it.
     Guy said the program leaders were adept at creating an environment of
 trust each day through the use of "a mixture of fun, silliness, excitement,
 relaxation and a sense of safety," enabling a more candid ability to engage in
 "more serious introspection" and to "deal with more weighty issues."
     It challenged individuals to reflect on the existence of "bases of power"
 and "those who get singled out." But it also sought to show the commonality
 between "power groups" and "marginalized groups" in their common needs to care
 about people.
     "It's hard to describe if you're not in the process," he conceded.
     Guy said he came into the session with no expectations, other than that
 he'd heard it is a good, quality program. "They delivered," he said.
     "Their message is: making a difference in the world takes the action of
 one person, and it can be done," he said. "The students are challenged to live
 life that way."
     "Some of the students were incredibly moved, some more moderately or
 less," he said. "But even for those who weren't moved as much, they could see
 how important the program was for their peers."
     A Mason High senior, who did not take part in the program but spoke with
 many who did and reflected on its impact with fellow students at the school in
 the subsequent week, told the News-Press that "everyone really enjoyed it and
 was impressed by it."
     He said that while some of the euphoria from the program might have worn
 off a bit after a few days, he sensed that there will be values that endure.
 "There's definitely been a change in the way students relate to some others
 that may have been picked on before," he said. "And that hasn't gone away."
     Guy said he personally favors having the program return next year, but
 hasn't discussed it with other administrators yet. After the session, he said
 there was talk that maybe if it returns next spring, there may be some
 students who went through it this time that may want to join with faculty
 members helping to lead the program.
     The "Challenge Days" was made possible by a personal grant from the News-
 Press' Benton, who used his contribution to found the novel "Diversity
 Affirmation Education Fund." The fund was formally established by a unanimous
 vote of the Falls Church School Board last spring. Benton says he intends to
 continue replenishing the fund with on-going special fundraising efforts.
     Benton said he was delighted by the reports of the success of the
 "Challenge Days" at George Mason High.
     In a statement, Benton said, "In the 15 years since I founded and I've
 done the Falls Church News-Press, my admiration for the Falls Church School
 System has only continued to grow. After creating a scholarship for GMHS
 seniors, donating an electronic scoreboard for the baseball diamond and
 sponsoring an annual 'Day at the Ballgame' every spring to honor students in
 the system, I was able a year ago to make my greatest expression of
 appreciation for the F.C. schools, which was to create the `Diversity
 Affirmation Education Fund.'"
     He added, "As a gay person, I have a personal interest in addressing the
 kind of taunting, bullying and disrespect for differences that make school
 days miserable for far too many, but I think it is a matter that should be of
 concern to everyone. Unchecked, such patterns can lead to lifelong self-esteem
 and related problems, if not to suicide and other self-destructive behaviors.
 I've known too many victims. I am happy to be able to contribute to at least
 part of a solution, and am thrilled at what it seems the `Challenge Days' has
 begun at George Mason High School."
 
     CONTACT:  Jody Fellows of Falls Church News-Press, +1-703-532-3267,
 jfellows@fcnp.com.
 
 

SOURCE Falls Church News-Press

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