Local students joined their peers in all 50 states and several countries around the world by participating in the "See You at the Pole" campaign, a student-led and student-initiated movement of prayer that has students gathering around school flagpoles or other places on school grounds to pray together.
Cass High's observance of the annual event had the nearly 90 participants -- students, parents, community members and staff -- gathering near the school's flagpole and forming small groups that offered various prayers, such as invocations for the country and its leaders, the people of Bartow County and Cartersville, and the Cass High community.
"It gave everybody a chance to speak their mind and speak from what they had in their heart," said Cass senior Walter Johnson, who served as a prayer leader at the morning event. "If you're scared or nervous or didn't know what to say, you just squeezed the hand of the guy next to you.
"I think it was a positive start to the day, [with the message of] the way to change things for the better," Johnson added, "because our community, we do need help, including all the students in the school."
Fellow Cass senior Dana Hambrick also served as a small-group prayer leader, but also led a prayer in front of all those in attendance. She said that while those who spoke and offered prayers had several positive messages to share, one message came to the forefront in her mind right after the event.
"I guess the main thing we want to focus on is be yourself and let God show you who to be, and to not be fake and be real, and just be for Him, not for yourself," Hambrick said.
According to syatp.com, the first multi-state "See You at the Pole" took place Sept. 12, 1990, and had more than 45,000 teens in four states participating. The event is now held annually on the fourth Wednesday of September and typically begins at 7 a.m. or close to it, with more than 3 million students participating each year.
Also observing the annual campaign were students at Excel Christian Academy. Greg Gore, a senior at the school, helped organize the event, which had three prayer group leaders in each grade leading small groups in prayer before all those in attendance gathered in a circle to pray.
Gore said that while Excel has weekly chapel services, Wednesday's event gave students a chance to take a more active role in worship.
"This is more just student-led, and it kind of gives more of us a chance to talk and [show] what we're presenting from the student body, and it's a good leadership thing, I think," Gore said. "Even though we do [chapel] once a week, it kind of just shows to our community that we still have the leadership as well as the students to be able to go out and lead ourselves in this own thing, that we don't always have to have authority over us."
Excel freshman Taylor Vaughan read from Scripture during her school's gathering, which she said seemed to help some of her peers open up to others.
"A lot of people are shy around other people, so it was really easy for people who didn't know a lot of people to open up about their prayers [in the small groups]," she said. "I guess it helped others open up more and, like, talk about stuff that they haven't really talked about, help them get that off their chest and help them be able to talk to their friends a whole lot more about prayer and Jesus."
Cartersville High had about 100 students taking part in their "See You at the Pole" morning rally. While the gathering began in front of the school, the rain led organizers to move it inside the school building.
Drew Startup, a faculty adviser of Cartersville High's Fellowship of Christian Athletes, said the entire "See You at the Pole" experience is a way to bring Christians together, both the day of the event and beyond.
"I believe that as Christians, this is a chance to stand up for what we believe in, and also it's a great chance -- there's a lot of people at our school that come to FCA on Friday mornings that don't have a home church, and they won't go to a place of worship on Sunday, but they may come to something like this where their friends are coming too, and they think it's a big event, so why not go check it out?" Startup said. "That's why it's so important to be able to encourage these kids to come and find out what's going on, so maybe they can get plugged into a church where they can grow in their relationship with Christ."
While students participating in "See You at the Pole" observances started their day at their respective schools, many came together that night at the Clarence Brown Conference Center to take part in a cross-denominational rally aimed at middle- and high-schoolers.
Startup said he hoped students who participated in the morning festivities at their respective schools would make it to the evening rally, the first major event to be held in the conference center.
"Our goal is to be able to get your students from your school body together and pray as a body of Christ," Startup said, "but then to transition tonight as our community to a body of Christ, so our job [as Christians] is to try to get as many of those kids to come tonight to hear God speak to their heart and to be able to join as one group in our community."
David Franklin, associational missionary for the Bartow Baptist Association, said estimates put attendance at the morning rallies at the county's middle and high schools over the 900-student mark. That number was exceeded Wednesday night, as a Cartersville Visitors Bureau official estimated the conference center crowd at about 1,200 people, as the 1,000 chairs the venue had placed for the event were full and left many attendees standing.
"We're excited tonight. We believe this will be the largest gathering of teenagers in Bartow County for anything quite like this, for a purpose like this," Franklin said before the event started. "There's such energy and excitement with teenagers, and tonight, this is just kind of a culmination of them having just the empowerment to pray for their schools, for their friends."
In addition to praise music, the night event featured guest speaker Chris Plekenpol, an U.S. Army veteran who encouraged the youths to "put Christ first."
Franklin said he hoped teens who attended Wednesday's events will take the heart the positive message presented by Plekenpol and others.
"The world teaches kids that they're supposed to be self-centered. The world says, 'It's all about me,'" Franklin said. "We're saying to these kids, 'No, it's not about you,' there's a higher calling in life -- it's about Jesus.
"We definitely hope that kids understand that there's something more important than themselves. 'Me-ism' is a disease that is killing America. And to help your fellow man -- tell the teenagers to start now helping other people instead of living for yourself -- that it's a good thing."