To get the best out of young people, Mike Chorey felt compelled to see the worst.
There can be no other explanation why Chorey, the founder of a local youth organization and an assistant football coach at Lancaster High School, was on a plane to Colorado a few days after the April shootings at Columbine High School.
"At the time I really felt like there was a reason that I had to go, and I would understand it once I got there," said Chorey. "I felt like I was supposed to go to that high school."
It was six months ago Monday that two students, Dylan Klebold, 17, and Eric Harris, 18, opened fire inside the school, killing 12 students and a teacher, and injuring 23 before turning the guns on themselves. They fired hundreds of rounds of ammunition and detonated some of the several dozen homemade bombs they carried.
After the massacre, witnesses said the school resembled a war zone with overturned furniture, scattered backpacks and heavy damage to the cafeteria and library.
In one way, Chorey wishes Buffalo-area high school students could have experienced what he did during his visit to the traumatized community. In another way, he's trying to take them there during a series of speeches he's been giving all summer and into this fall throughout Western New York.
Among his stops were a rally at Pioneer High School, a memorial service at Lancaster, addressing students and faculty at Christian Central Academy and speaking before 100 football players at the Jerry Butler camp. Last week he traveled to Pittsburgh to address a crowd of 600 students and parents from surrounding schools.
Chorey, who saw first-hand the terrible pain the deaths brought to the community during his two-day visit, brings a message of life in his inspiring talks.
"I really challenge students to make a commitment to reach out to others in their school that are not like them," he said. "To reach out to the Erics and Dylans in their school that are outcasts. I challenge kids to go into the school cafeteria, and see someone sitting alone, and eat lunch with them, to get out of their comfort zone."
He said football players have an incredible opportunity to have an influence in their school. "My emphasis for them is to find someone who's not an athlete, a loner, and really befriend them," he said. "Football players are given a platform to change their school, many times they take it, and sometimes they don't. They're wearing their jersey to school, it goes to their head and they become prideful. It's like the saying: 'to whom much is given, much is required.' "
Young people have reacted to his talks with tears and prayers of repentance as they recognize the same kind of cruelty and abuse in their own school, and even in themselves.
His speeches highlight the courage of a student Cassie Bernall, who with a gun barrel pressed against her head, did not hesitate to say "yes" when asked by one of the gunman if she believed in God. She was immediately killed.
Chorey said the ironic thing about Bernall's life was that as a freshman she was headed down the same path as Klebold and Harris.
"Her mom had found letters when she was a freshman from her friend about how they were going to kill their parents," said Chorey. "Her mom got really afraid and pulled her out of school. She went to a camp, and at that camp she found Jesus. She came home from this camp and said to her mom, 'I've changed, and I'll prove it to you.' From that moment on she was a changed person, and people in her school saw it," said Chorey.
Chorey said the Columbine campus was littered with flowers, letters, banners, Bibles and a few letterman jackets. He spent time at Columbine behind the school where on a hill stood seven-foot crosses for each of the 15 people who died. In his journal he recorded some of the messages students had written to their fallen classmates.
"I spent a lot of time at the cross of Eric Harris. That one drew me the most," he said. "One of the students had written on his cross: 'Eric, I can not condone what you did. No one can. You died over a year ago, and no one noticed. Shame on us for not noticing.' That really grabbed me."
Chorey attended the funeral of Isiah Shoels, who was singled out by the shooters for being African American. He said an estimated 5,000 people filled the sanctuary, and that his only vantage point was looking in through a window. "You should have seen the faces of the kids who were there and how broken they were. I'll never forget the pain I saw in their faces," said Chorey.
Before the school reopened Aug. 16, construction crews spent the summer completing $1.2 million worth of renovations, from plastering bullet and shrapnel holes to replacing carpet with linoleum and repainting gray walls blue, white and green. Columbine's enrollment of 2,000 is about 400 students more than the largest high school in WNY.
In 1987 Chorey, 37, founded the Buffalo/Western New York Youth for Christ group located on Broadway in Lancaster. The organization works with local churches to reach out to all kids, especially those at risk. He is also one of the founders and directors of the Butler Football camp, and has served as an assistant coach for the Redskins the past eight seasons. He attend Bishop Neumann and graduated from the University at Buffalo with a degree in physical education before becoming a licensed minister.
Chorey said that the problems that led to the Columbine tragedy remain in our schools today. Harris and Klebold were targets of hateful language and taunting, some from athletes whom students said were provided special status. "One student told me the definition of a teen-ager today is to be cruel to anyone who is not like you," said Chorey.
Chorey believes that America is reaping what it has sown in terms of filling the minds of our youth with images of murderous acts and other forms of violence through movies, video games, television and the internet. He said the most asinine question being asked after Columbine is "why?" when a better question might be, "why not, because we live in a society where kids are angry."
While talking with a City Honors student during a leadership camp at Houghton College, Chorey asked the young man: "How did my generation fail your generation?" The student answered, "You gave us all this stuff to look at. Did you think we weren't going to do it?"