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He had an Idea, She Helped it Grow: Dean Morgan Junior High holds 16th Annual Challenge Day Program.

He had an Idea, She Helped it Grow: Dean Morgan Junior High holds 16th Annual Challenge Day Program

When Sue Schilling gave a simple birthday gift to a young student she was working with she had no idea the magnitude of impact it would make, not only on his life, but also on hundreds of NCSD students for years to come.

A school Social Worker at Dean Morgan, Sue was working with Mark who mentioned one day  that his family had not celebrated his birthday in a few years. He had always shown great interest and happiness in listening to her read from a collection of stories in the popular “Chicken Soup for the Soul” books. One Friday afternoon, Sue gave Mark a copy of the book as a birthday gift.

This could be where the story ends. This simple act of kindness is beyond enough for a young man who hadn’t seen his birthday recognized by adults in many years.

But the story gets better.

Mark excitedly professed to Sue he would read the entire book over the weekend and come back on Monday ready to share his “best” story. For a young man working on improving his reading skills, this was quite a feat in itself. Monday morning rolled around and sure enough, Mark rushed into Sue’s office ready to share his “best” story from the book. He had chosen a simple story about a young man’s experience at a school “Challenge Day”.

“Challenge Day’s mission is to provide youth and their communities with experiential workshops and programs that demonstrate the possibility of love and connection through the celebration of diversity, truth and full expression.” (

Inspired and excited, Mark wanted to see the program at Dean Morgan and he knew just the person who cared enough to see his idea come to light, Ms. Schilling. After reading her the story, he shared his idea, “Ms. Schilling, I think our school needs something like this.  You should see if you can bring it here!” Smiling, he turned and walked to class.

Over the summer, Sue’s thoughts were often drawn back to Mark’s idea. She kept hearing the excitement in his voice when he talked about his “best” story. A young man who never asked for much, and received even less, was excited and inspired.

So, she did what she always does, she found a way to help. Spending countless summer hours researching and making calls, she finally connected with the founders of the Challenge Day Program, Rich and Yvonne Dutra St. John. With resounding program success in California, they had yet to venture beyond the state line to deliver a Challenge Day. After hearing the passion and determination in Sue’s voice they decided to bring their program to NCSD. That was 16 years ago.

It gets even better.

Mark moved on to Natrona County High School before he was able to first handily see the impact the Challenge Day program had at Dean Morgan. After expanding to Wyoming, Rich and Yvonne Dutra St. John decided to take their vision as far as possible. Since 1987, Challenge Day programs have been held in over 400 cities, 47 U.S. states, and in countries like Sweden and Canada. Sue often wondered if Mark knew the effect his encouragement and idea had on people around the world.

Participating in every Challenge Day since the beginning, Sue often felt a twinge of sadness in not seeing the smiling face of the young man whose idea created such a profound effect on so many in the crowd of participants. A few years after that simple, yet meaningful, Monday morning discussion Ms. Schilling ran into Mark at a local bank and excitedly told him all the wonderful things the Challenge Day program was doing all over the world, in part thanks to his idea. Sue shared with him that her only regret was that he left Dean Morgan Junior High before he was able to see his idea come full circle.

Only he did.

Mark would later participate in the Challenge Day program as a student at Natrona County High School. With the encouragement, fundraising efforts and support of Sue Schilling and her development team: Walt Wilcox, Nancy Johnson, Wayne Beatty, Dan Tholson and other key individuals, Challenge Day programs have also been held at NCHS and KWHS.

However, the program found a home at Dean Morgan where it has been instrumental to student success since that Friday afternoon, 16 years ago, when a young man received a simple birthday gift.


Over 200 students participated in the recent Challenge Days at Dean Morgan Junior High. The program, led by Rich and Yvonne St. John Dutra, has found a home at Dean Morgan Junior High. For over 16 years the dynamic duo have been visiting the school to encourage students to “Be the Change”.


Students created “Superhero” capes at the end of the day with words of encouragement, appreciation and acceptance written on them by other Challenge Day participants.


Before Challenge Day, the infraction rate at DMJH was just over 7000 per year. Over the years with the assistance Challenge Day, the infraction rate has plateaued at around 1000 per year.


The success of the program at DMJH is largely in-part due to student mentors (seen in the tie-dyed shirts) who help facilitate the 2 day program with the assistance of parent, NCSD staff and community volunteers.


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This entry was posted on January 20, 2015 by in Community, Excellence, Home - Inside NCSD.

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