To talk with founders Yvonne and Rich about the history of Challenge Day is to take a journey across thirty-five years, one that begins with a shared conviction. “We believe everyone does the best they can, and that’s the place we meet them,” says Yvonne. It’s where Challenge Day started, and it’s what the program still seeks to draw out from people: The best you have to offer.

Yvonne grew up in Brentwood, California, and she remembers her father as a gentle but mostly absent man. She was parented primarily by her mother, who had experienced severe child abuse. “That abuse trickled down into my own life, the way abuse does, and I turned to food to dampen the stress and the pain. I ended up with an eating disorder, which led to being insulted, almost tortured, in school. And that led me, finally, to a suicide attempt.” Yvonne pauses over that memory, and then she smiles. “Now I see all that as preparation for what Richie and I later created.”

As a result of her own experience, Yvonne’s early work addressed eating disorders and gender stereotyping with kids in schools. She used writing programs to help groups come together, get close, and stop the hurting. “I was working with teenagers, trying to keep them out of jail and away from addictions. Then I heard about an organization in Oakland called Thunder Road, whose goals overlapped with my own. I went to visit it with a friend. I met Richie and we spent the day together at the facility. When we left, I turned to my friend and said, ‘I’m supposed to be with that man.’ The next day, he called and offered me a job.”

Rich as well remembers being bullied every day of his life until he went to high school. “I was small. I grew up in an alcoholic home. And I knew I didn’t want our kids to go through what Yvonne and I had suffered as children. We were twenty-five and twenty-seven when we met. Like many young people, we saw a world in need of saving, and we wanted to help save it. We wanted to break down walls and build bridges.”

After their first meeting, Rich and Yvonne realized they wanted to bring their work and their passions together. They both believed in treatment and healing for teenagers, and that all teenagers in some way or another needed these things. They believed that everyone should be celebrated where they are and for who they are. As Yvonne remembers it, “We were young and confident and in love, so we started writing a 12-hour program that we called ‘Challenge Day.’ Word got out, and before we knew it a school administrator called us with an emergency. ‘We need you—right now!’ he said. ‘There’s a huge, racially-motivated fight going on in our school as we speak. Fifty kids are involved.’ So Richie and I took a deep breath, walked in there, and led our first Challenge Day. This was in 1987. And it was transformative— for all of us. We saw kids who were bruised holding each other. We saw kids who were hurting forgive each other. After that day, word began to spread. We didn’t do any marketing. It just took off. Documentaries were made. We were inundated with responses and requests.”

That doesn’t mean it’s been easy. “After we became a nonprofit, we had more work than we could handle, and we were doing it all. Creating and leading the programs, modifying them to 6-hour sessions, studying the research,” Yvonne says. “At the same time, our budget was upside down, and we were in danger of folding. And then—I found out that I had congenital heart disease. I had open heart surgery and spent a year in the hospital. We went bankrupt and lost our house. It wasn’t easy.”

But resilience is at the heart of what Challenge Day does, and that applies to everyone involved. “We have to live what we teach,” says Rich. “We used to think we could save the whole world. But what it’s really about is taking the assignment in front of you, and taking that assignment—whether it’s a person or an illness or a trauma—in service and with integrity and love. That’s what it’s about.”

The memories across thirty-five years of work are thick, and they go back to the very beginning. “I still remember the first Challenge Day we did,” says Yvonne, “and watching the magic unfolding, seeing the walls come down. During that part of the program when the students become the teachers is when the miracles always start happening. There was a girl in the circle who was crying because she was relentlessly teased for ‘being fat.’ Well, the captain of the football team came up, grabbed the microphone, and walked to the other side of the circle where she was standing. The entire football team followed him. He stood there and looked here in the eyes and said, ‘I am so sorry for the years of teasing and bullying we have put you through, and I swear to you that will never happen again.’ And then he hugged her. I looked at Richie at that moment, and we both knew this would be our lives’ work. Every day we do a Challenge Day, we do it for that moment.”

“Challenge Day wasn’t given to us just to keep,” continues Rich. “Our goal is to get this out into every country of the world. After all,” Rich says, “people are people, anywhere you go. It’s about love.”