Darrell Scott has told the story of his daughter Rachel's life, death and legacy thousands of times in schools all over the world in the decade since her murder at age 17 in the mass shootings at Columbine High School, a few miles south of Englewood.
But never before, he said, had he stood before an audience like the one on Friday morning in the garage of a carpet and upholstery cleaning franchise.
Instead of students, the listeners were men, and a few women, in blue-collar work clothes. Instead of teenagers, urged by Scott to make a world where horrors like Columbine never happen again, the 50 spectators were mostly parents. Many of the workers looked tough and burly, and some had joined the company only in recent months, managers said, forced by the economic downturn into second careers in cleaning.
But when music swelled and a photo of Rachel's diary, which was in her backpack and was pierced by a bullet when she died 10 years ago Monday, filled the projection screen, many of the workers wiped away tears, just as audiences do during Scott's speeches to student assemblies.
"I think we're all in agreement about life being too short," said Tim Bohling, a sales technician, when Scott was finished.
What Rachel believed was crystallized in an essay she wrote a month before she and 14 other people, including the two gunmen, were killed at Columbine on April 20, 1999. Its global promulgation by a nonprofit group Scott founded, Rachel's Challenge, is now branching out into corporate America. The Colorado franchise of COIT cleaning was the pilot foray into this new frontier; the company was offered the program free to see how Rachel's message of "looking for the best and beauty in everyone" would resonate in a new setting.
Scott, 59, said the corporate effort -- run by a for-profit company, with Rachel's Challenge receiving a percentage through a licensing agreement -- was aimed not so much at stopping the bullying and cruelty of school, but at alleviating the angst and anxiety of work.
"In the corporate world, greed and self-interest have been the focal point," Scott said after his presentation. "That made us realize that Rachel's Challenge has a place."
New venue, new revenue
He also hopes that the corporate training will become a new revenue source, to help finance the expanding list of ventures that Rachel's Challenge is involved with, from feeding the hungry to helping support cleft palate surgery programs in third world countries. Rachel's Challenge has a staff of 50 and an annual budget of $3.5 million, almost all of it paid through fees from schools for the group's presentations and seminars. But Scott said it needs new staff members to manage and monitor its expanding list of programs.
Counseling experts say the appetite for messages of hope or compassion -- whether from Rachel's words or someone else's -- is just about bottomless these days in corporate life, as layoffs and economic fear stalk the landscape.
"We're all just being stretched to the boundaries of our ability to cope," said Bob Separ, a social worker and clinician at Corporate Counseling Associates, a New York-based company that runs employee assistance programs. Calls from distressed employees increased 15 percent last fall, Separ said, as did the severity of the problems people were calling about.
At COIT, which cleans carpets, drapes, upholstery and air ducts, the recession has not led to layoffs, said Steven Peterson, the owner and president of the Denver franchise. But it has had an impact, as bad times elsewhere in the economy have rippled through Colorado. Recruiting is easier now, he said, and turnover is lower, as people stay in the job longer.
It is debatable whether any one effort, however well-meaning, can alter the grand sweep of an economy or society, or indeed whether anything has changed since that bleak morning in 1999 when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, armed with bombs and high-powered weapons, stormed their school.
There have been even worse rampages, like the one at Virginia Tech University, which left 32 people dead in 2007, blunting Columbine's special place of horror. But law enforcement and school intervention efforts have evolved too, perhaps heading off other attacks.
The message from Scott and the organizers of the new corporate training program is that Rachel wanted to touch everyone. In her essay, she wrote about starting "a chain reaction of kindness and compassion," that might, when repeated and expanded exponentially, eventually change the world.
That thought created the core message of the Rachel's Challenge program, Scott said, but also the appetite for growth in the organization. More people reached, more lives touched -- there is no end to that chain, either, he said.
Sam Garnett, a cleaning technician at COIT, said he definitely understood that part of the message Scott delivered: actions, for good or ill, ripple out into the world with consequences that cannot be contained or maybe even known. Next time when he is driving to a job and some impatient driver wants to cut in front of him, he said he will back off and wave the driver in. The courtesy and compassion will come back, he said.
"It just goes around," Garnett said. "That's what this was about."
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