'Have you ever seen the movie "Pay it Forward?" It's like that'

COOS BAY, Ore. (AP) — Eight students gathered in an upstairs classroom of Marshfield's main building recently to decorate signs for the lockers of students with birthdays during the winter break.

Junior Tristen Lewis, a member of the Friends of Rachel club, colored a "happy birthday" sign and chatted with group newcomers. He said the lesson they're learning through the group is simple: Teach respect to get respect.

While it's traditional for high school students to decorate their friends' lockers on their birthdays, the club works to ensure all students feel appreciated.

"I've been trying to make friends since my freshman year," said Lewis, adding he now invites everyone he encounters to come to the group's meetings.

The Friends of Rachel is a student-driven program at Marshfield intended to reach out to isolated students and promote compassion in the community. Inspired by the national Rachel's Challenge anti-bullying movement, the group has quickly grown over the past few months to include around 30 active members, said Mark Stephens, one of its staff advisers.

In the wake of the Dec. 14 shooting in Connecticut, bullying and social isolation have been among the possible contributing factors raised in media coverage.

Stephens said he's counting on this kind of outreach to pre-empt isolated students from contemplating self-harm or violence out of desperation.

"It's my hope that reaching kids who we can tell are isolated — that nobody's talking to them, nobody's reaching out to them — we can make that connection," he said.

The group's activities range from "high-five Thursdays" to encouraging kids to directly intervene in bullying.

Stephens, a speech pathologist at the school, said he got involved after a Rachel's Challenge presentation at the school. Rachel's Challenge is a national nonprofit organization founded by the parents of Rachel Scott, a 17-year-old victim of the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

The organization promotes a culture of compassion based on Scott's life and journal writings, and regularly holds assemblies at schools across the country.

Stephens said that one of the goals of Friends of Rachel is to get students concerned and involved in caring for their peers' social welfare. 'We as adults do (look out for alienated students), but we don't see everything that goes on," said Stephens. "A lot gets by us."

The club meets every Wednesday, and is constantly devising new projects to inject kindness into the community. One of their recent efforts was spending a Saturday helping strangers carry their bags out of local stores.

"A lot of people thought we were selling something," said junior Karissa Irvin, but shoppers eventually warmed to the helpful strangers. "Have you ever seen the movie 'Pay it Forward?' It's like that," said Irvin, referencing a film about a boy who starts a chain-reaction of good deeds.

"It sounds kind of hokey," said Stephens, but the program has had a noticeable effect on the school's social atmosphere.

In the front hallway of Marshfield's main building, a giant banner proclaiming "I accept Rachel's Challenge" is covered with several hundred student signatures.

Cheyenne Vaughn, a quiet, dark-haired girl who prefers to be called "Rave," said she's been a victim of harassment for most of her time in school. Vaughn started coming to the meetings only after Stephens caught her off guard with a spontaneous greeting in the hallway.

In a poem of encouragement she wrote for the group, Vaughn summed up the ethos of the club in one line:

"Make a change and do an act of kindness every day, because someday they will thank you and everything will be OK."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press