Warm embrace for kids, or merely 'psycho cry fest'?

The Seattle Times/April 10, 2002
By Keith Ervin

Sitting in small circles, their knees touching, students shared their own hurt and the pain they had inflicted on others. The tears flowed. In some groups, half the Washington Middle School students were crying at once.

Applause followed, as the seventh- and eighth-graders stepped up to roving microphones and declared what they would do to mend broken relationships with their schoolmates.

Two boys shook hands after one apologized for making fun of the other, and said he hoped to be more supportive.

A girl owned up to snubbing an old friend. "I'm sorry that I've been very distant and that I've chosen other friends in school," she said. "I'm going to work on that, and I'm going to be a better friend."

The girls embraced.

Challenge Day, a workshop aimed at creating a safe school environment free of teasing and harassment, has come to Seattle public schools.

Students and staff members were effusive in their praise for the fast-growing program. Nearly 300 students from Washington and Meany middle schools participated in three daylong sessions last week.

But the emotional intensity of the workshops - and their promotion of encounter-style seminars by a controversial for-profit company - have led critics to suggest the schools have strayed into inappropriate areas.

Challenge Day participants received information packets about a seminar offered in Seattle next month by Resource Realizations, a Scottsdale, Ariz., company best known for its work in residential behavior-modification programs for troubled teens. The company's seminars also were plugged at free parent workshops in the schools.

The Rev. Ron Davis, pastor of Magnolia Presbyterian Church and the father of a Washington eighth-grader who did not attend Challenge Day, said he was concerned about the involvement of Resource Realizations.

"You open the door, you make kids vulnerable, you hand them off to Resource Realizations. I find that unacceptable," Davis said.

Last week's workshops, described by one student as "a psycho cry fest," were the first joint venture involving Resource Realizations, the separate, nonprofit Challenge Day organization, graduates of Resource Realizations seminars, and public schools.

Washington Principal Marilyn Day said she had been unaware of Resource Realizations' partnership with Challenge Day but did not view the workshops as attempts to recruit students to seminars. She said families won't sign up for seminars if they feel they are inappropriate.

Meany Middle School Principal Christi Clark could not be reached for comment.

Superintendent Joseph Olchefske said he had little information about the events and expects middle-schools director Donna Hudson to speak with the principals after spring break.

Olchefske noted that Seattle schools are allowed considerable discretion in deciding what is beneficial for students and are encouraged to form partnerships with outside groups. However, "Clearly, the idea of marketing through kids is something we frown on," he said.

A letter from Resource Realizations founder David Gilcrease to the parents of Challenge Day participants said "the next step for your teen" is the company's three-day, $295 Teen Discovery seminar. Brochures were provided for a May 3-5 seminar at the Ramada Inn on Northgate Way.

"While Challenge Day is a critical first step, a one-day learning experience only goes so far," Gilcrease wrote. "To create truly lasting transformation in their lives, most teens need more."

Critics have accused Resource Realizations' seminars, like the better-known est and Lifespring trainings of the 1970s, of "brainwashing" participants. Gilcrease was a Lifespring facilitator for five years before starting his own company in 1986.

Resource Realizations is a defendant in several lawsuits in which parents claim their children were emotionally abused by seminar facilitators or staff at behavior-therapy facilities where teen seminars are held. The company denies the allegations.

Until now, the seminars have been pitched primarily to teens and parents of teens in the five member programs of the St. George, Utah-based World Wide Association of Specialty Programs.

The pilot program in Seattle is the first step in bringing the seminars to a larger market.

Gilcrease said the new approach offers "a huge potential growth area" for his $2 million-a-year company, but the motivation isn't financial.

"We make pretty good money. I don't need money. We want to make a difference. We've got some serious problems here," Gilcrease said.

Family Visions Foundation, created by seminar graduates, paid nearly $10,000 for the middle schools' Challenge Days as part of an effort to reach a broader range of families, including those not in crisis, said Family Visions board member Michele Anciaux Aoki, who arranged the Washington and Meany workshops.

"It's been a gift to our family," Aoki said of the seminars she has attended with her husband since she took her struggling 16-year-old son to Spring Creek Lodge in Thompson Falls, Mont., three years ago.

Aoki, co-president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at Washington Middle School, is one of many parents who credit the seminars with motivating their children to straighten up and with bringing families back together.

Mort Hurt, who went through seminars to support his daughter nine years ago, called it "a life-changing experience. ... If we had a program like this worldwide, we wouldn't be having the problems we face today."

Schools, eager to find antidotes to the damaging effects of cliques, bullying, and drug and alcohol abuse, have embraced Challenge Day in growing numbers. St. Joseph School in Seattle offered the program to sixth- through eighth-graders in February.

Challenge Day, created in 1987 by teen intervention counselors Yvonne and Rich St. John-Dutra, has expanded rapidly since a story about it appeared in the best-selling book "Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul." The organization's headquarters are in Martinez, Calif.

At Washington Middle School's Challenge Day, students stood behind a blue line stretched across the large social hall in St. Joseph Church on Capitol Hill.

Students and staff members silently crossed the line if various life experiences applied to them. Have you or a friend or family member faced a problem with alcohol or drugs? Has a loved one died of a serious illness? Has one been beaten or killed?

Have you contemplated suicide or known someone who killed himself? Have you ever been teased because you were considered too skinny? Too fat?

Have you been poor, homeless or on welfare?

Students reflected on what they had learned, then made public apologies to their schoolmates.

After the final exercise - hugging as many people as possible in two minutes, to the theme from "Rocky" - eighth-grader Sydney Simon said of Challenge Day, "It changed me. I feel more compassionate and loving toward everybody. Differences don't matter so much anymore."

Her feeling was widely shared. One boy later told a counselor it had been the best day of his life; he felt as though 80 pounds had been lifted from his shoulders.

St. Joseph School Administrator George Hofbauer called Challenge Day "a phenomenally powerful experience" that made students more sensitive to their schoolmates' feelings. He said the school funded the program before Challenge Day and Resource Realizations formed their partnership.

Meany social-studies teacher Jamie Asaka called the experience "just fabulous." But a couple of students asked her, "OK, now we've opened up our wounds. Are we going to get a chance to deal with some of these things?"

Challenge Day was, overall, a very positive experience, but some parts may have been "a little bit too raw, a little too intense," said Meany head counselor Sally Graham-Hurt. School staffers are now discussing a possible follow-up program with the Northwest Family Visions Foundation.

Graham-Hurt said she had "twinges of discomfort" over the promotion of Resource Realizations seminars to students.

Some participants in those seminars have been offended by the experience. Clayton, Calif., piano dealer Kendall Ross Bean said he dropped out when he was told to affirm his trust in other group members by telling his "deepest, darkest secret" to the next person he came to.

Thomas Burton, a Pleasanton, Calif., attorney representing several parents and children suing Resource Realizations and the behavior-modification facilities that contract for the seminars, said one client was told to wear a sign saying "Slut" after she confided she had been sexually abused. The girl also was told to wear a fishnet top and assume sexually provocative poses, Burton said.

Founder Gilcrease said he was unaware of Burton's allegation and said such tactics would not be used in any of his company's seminars. "They're tough and they're fair and they're not about degrading people," he said.

Gilcrease also said the "script" for seminar facilitators does not include asking participants to reveal their deepest, darkest secrets. However, participants are encouraged to face painful truths that might stand in the way of healthy family relationships, he said.

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