The Character Movement

The Big Change

By Debra G, Youth Frontiers Retreat Musician

The big change. He was the captain of the basketball team, president of his senior class – a high achieving student with a calm demeanor whose confidence filled the room. His name was Denzel*.

I met him when he was in ninth grade. Denzel’s class was the first at Johnson High School in St. Paul, Minn. to go through the Respect Retreat. It was – to be honest – a difficult day. The freshman didn’t want to be there and they intimidated the upperclassmen small group leaders. It wasn’t going to be easy for my coworker and me to convince these ninth graders or leaders that this was going to be a fun and rewarding experience.

Midday, during one of the games, the energy of the retreat started to shift. My coworker and I began to see the students laughing and having fun with each other. To our surprise, the students listened respectfully during my first song and my coworker’s first talk. Some even came up to us during lunch to thank us for sharing and give us positive feedback.

We experienced the most powerful transformation at the end of the retreat. Several students got up to share how respect played out in their lives and how they needed to believe in themselves more. Some even challenged themselves and their classmates to work together to improve the reputation of their school.

Three years later, it was Denzel and his fellow juniors’ turn to be small-group leaders for the new freshman, and their eagerness for the responsibility was overwhelming. The first step was to join the leadership program at Johnson, called LinkCREW. The program received such a surge of applications as students showed a renewed desire to lead their school that the school had to implement an interview process. Needless to say, the Respect Retreats that year were powerful and extremely memorable.

The next year, Denzel and his classmates participated in their last retreat ever: the Wisdom Retreat for seniors. There was something about the energy of this day I will never forget. The positivity and love that the class had for each other were beautiful.

One of my favorite moments from that day was when Denzel pulled me aside at lunch and started reminiscing about his freshman year. He said he remembered how divided his school used to be. “It seemed like everyone hated coming to school,” he told me. Then we started talking about that first Respect Retreat and how it inspired Denzel and his class to take responsibility for making their school a safer and more positive place for everyone. Since then, Denzel noticed a BIG change happening in the classroom, in the cafeteria and in the hallways at Johnson High School. “I believe the Respect Retreats changed our school, Debra,” Denzel said.

Denzel looked me right in the eye and said he was so encouraged that his peers were standing up for what they believed was right. He said he and his classmates regularly share lunch and laughter with students they used to avoid; many who used to raise fists in the hallways now give each other high fives instead. He told me that he is proud of his school’s diversity and all that it has to offer for its present and future students.

Moments later Denzel began to smile as his eyes welled up with tears. He paused, looked down and said, “This is my last retreat, Debra. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe how much these retreats have changed my class, my school experience and my life. Thank you.” He gave me a big hug. We then walked away from each other feeling overwhelmed and emotional but also uplifted and thankful as the epic senior dance party began.

This is why I’m still here. It’s my 15th year at YF and stories like this remind me how important experiences like a one-day Respect Retreat can be. Stories like Denzel’s are what fire me up each day. Some students need opportunities like our retreats to help them see that they are and will be leaders. One day can change a life forever, including mine.

*Name changed to preserve student’s privacy.

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