BHS anti-bullying program inspires hope, camaraderie in performers and audiences alike

By Katie Harris

The Surveyor

Fourteen-year-old Alex Vigil knows what it’s like to be bullied. The high school freshman said he’s been bullied ever since third grade, when he switched from a private to a public school in Denver.

“I was the only Caucasian kid and that made it really hard to make friends and fit in,” he said. “Kids would make fun of me just for having freckles; everything just kind of blew up and went downhill from there.”

(L-R) Alex Vigil, MariAnna Smith, Jade Embree, Audra Leeper and Sarah Foley.

For Vigil the situation didn’t begin to improve until middle school, when his family moved to Berthoud.

“In Berthoud I found that kids didn’t bully you as much, because there were a lot of other kids who had been bullied themselves, but sometimes I still got bullied for being from Denver,” he said. “It wasn’t until I went to high school that I felt like everything was finally being lifted.”

That was last August, just three months before the Berthoud High School freshman was presented with an opportunity to share his story with others, and hopefully inspire hope in those facing similar situations.

The opportunity came in the form of a vision of school guidance counselor, Sheila McNally’s, who, after 17 years of training in bullying programs decided to try a new approach.

“Last summer I started thinking about a way to combine writing and students’ personal stories, with counseling, kind of putting those three together to deal with bullying,” said McNally. “I melded my theater and counseling backgrounds together and came up with an idea that would be positive and easy for students to relate to.”

Her idea was an anti-bullying performance group in which high school students who had been bullied could write down and perform their stories for peers, offering outlets that had worked for them in the past, such as poetry and music, followed by a Q & A session.

In November McNally got the ball rolling by going room to room, looking for students willing to tell their stories. Her effort resulted in five ninth and tenth graders taking on the challenge.

One of those students, 15-year-old MariAnna Smith, said she decided to join the group because she lost a friend in first grade after another girl told the friend she couldn’t play with Smith anymore.

“I really loved the idea, because anything bullying-related I’ve been totally fascinated by ever since my encounter,” she said. “I saw the word bullying and I was immediately hooked.”

Her group of five solidified, McNally began having the students meet twice a week to write about their experiences. Over the next couple months they began reading and editing each other’s work, and before long the program had unofficially been dubbed “Sticks and Stones.” Before long, it was time to move out of their comfort zone to performing.

“These students don’t have backgrounds in theater or drama, so we slowly got into reading their stories to each other, then being in front of each other reading them, step by step working toward reading their stories on stage and at a performance level,” McNally said.

The group’s first performances took place at Walt Clark Middle School in Loveland shortly after winter break, where they performed their stories for four seventh- and eighth-grade classrooms.

“I didn’t want to make this stagey, I wanted it to seem authentic, so we don’t do it on a stage,” said McNally. “They don’t have costumes, they sit on stools, and it’s about their story, and how they became stronger.”

The Sticks and Stones group decided to focus on upper-middle-schoolers because, as ninth and tenth graders they hope to eradicate bullying in the incoming high school grade levels. They plan to perform at Turner Middle School next, and for their own high school classmates later this year.

“This is extending longer than I’d originally thought, but they’re invested in it, so we’ll keep it going,” said McNally. “We will get to high school; we’ll do our own high school. That’s the culture they want to change.”

Not only has the enthusiasm of the Sticks and Stones performers motivated McNally to add additional performances to the schedule, the reaction from the audiences thus far has exceeded what she could have hoped for.

“The kids at the middle school were leaning forward, not talking, listening and engaged,” she said. “They wanted to know what the performers would do in different situations. We knew, by all the questions they asked after that, we had made a difference. That’s the impact that we’ve had.”

For Smith the reactions of the students at Walt Clark are what inspired her to want to continue the performances.

“While we were there it was really easy to see that the kids were connecting with it,” she said. “There were times when kids seemed surprised, or maybe they were smiling over a joke in someone’s monologue. There were parts where some of the kids ended up crying.”

Smith’s goal in sharing her story with her peers is to inspire hope in others and to let them know it gets better. For Vigil, who’s stayed in touch with some of the middle schoolers the group presented to, the ultimate purpose in sharing his story is to let other students know they’re not alone.

According to McNally, not only have the high schoolers’ stories had an impact on their middle-school audiences, they’ve led to growth in the performers themselves as well.

“I’ve seen these kids come out of their shell,” said McNally. “I’ve seen some start to become leaders, even as ninth graders. They’ve learned how to have their voices heard. They’ve learned how to have respectful discussions that lead to growth; how to deal with issues right out in front of everyone, instead of running away. Their writing has developed, and they’ve learned to fine-tune and edit, and how to accept each other’s feedback. I’ve seen students making friends that had a hard time before.”

Vigil said the process has given him a chance to look inward and to realize fighting back only makes things worse. He said it’s given him the strength to stand up for himself and others in the future, rather than remaining a bystander.

“I joined the group not really expecting anything from it, just thinking it would be having fun with a whole bunch of other weirdos who’d been through the same thing,” he said.  “Instead I found out there are a whole bunch of different types of bullying . . . different stories, different reasons, different people.”

Smith said she connected with other students in the group whom she’d never spoken with before, making new friends through the process. The freshman is currently working on her Girl Scout Gold Award, and plans to focus on overcoming bullying at Turner Middle School by giving victims a way to speak out and ask questions without having to identify themselves.

As for the future of Sticks and Stones, McNally said she’d be willing to continue the program in coming years, assuming there’s still interest. “A few students have said that seeing their friends practice has made them want to be part of this next year,” she said. “It will be a whole new experience because it will be a whole new group of people.”

 

Along with the potential for new faces in the future, at least one current performer says he plans to continue in the group.

“If it does go on next year I will definitely come back,” said Vigil. “This is something that has really helped, and I really like sharing my story with other kids and letting them know they’re not alone.”

 

 

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