Courage can be found in all sorts of action.

"Courage is what you find on the other side of fear. The word 'courage' means to follow your heart and stay true to your core," Todd Hansen told the seventh-graders of Edgewood Middle School, who had gathered at a Youth Frontiers retreat. "Every day, you have the chance to stand up for what is right. To be yourself is a huge act of courage."

The seventh-graders had jumped into the subject with both feet -- literally. While Youth Frontiers leaders Hansen and Kesiah Kolbow swung a long rope back and forth, leader Dan Rodriguez encouraged the kids to take turns running to the other side of the room without touching the rope.

"If one of us gets hit, we all get hit," said Rodriguez, "and everyone has to go to the back and start again."

That simple challenge was a key component of the day-long retreat on the subject of courage for the nearly 100 students in the room.

Hansen said the ones who hadn't jumped through the rope had very different looks on their faces while they were waiting than those who had already taken a turn.

"You were wondering what people would think of you if you were the one who made everyone start over," he said. "But here's the good news -- you all got past the rope. You got over your fear and moved on."

Earlier in the day, students had submitted a list of fears they have, which included being afraid of rejection, looking different, being called names and not fitting in.

A focus on youth issues

Youth Frontiers, based in Minneapolis, was founded in 1987 by Joe Cavanaugh. Each year, he and his staff work with about 100,000 students and teachers at more than 650 retreats. In addition to the retreat on courage, there is one on kindness for elementary students as well as ones on respect and wisdom for high schoolers.

"Our goal at Youth Frontiers is to help kids be good and do good," said Cavanaugh. "We want to help them realize that if people were kind, bullying would disappear. If people were respectful, a lot of issues would disappear."

Follow-up materials to the retreat include a parent letter, a two-day reflection journal and classroom conversation starters that can all be used to create a common vocabulary around topics such as courage and respect.

Breanna Peloquin, an Edgewood teacher who attended the retreat, said challenges like peer pressure and bullying have profound effects on kids at this age.

"A lot of the identity they have depends on what other people think of them," she said. "I've had kids tell me they would much rather be physically hit by a bully than be called names or insulted by another student."

To close the day for the Edgewood students, Hansen dimmed the lights and asked for volunteers to share with their classmates what their own act of courage will be going forward. Several students dropped a small pebble into a bowl of water (representing the ripple effect of one person's actions) and took turns at the microphone.

"My act of courage will be to stand up for my friends when they are bullied. I've stood by and watched friends being bullied before and haven't done anything about it," said one girl.

"My act of courage," said a boy, "is to be myself."

Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer.

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