Last year, when Gabe was a 6th grader during the 2012/2013 school year, his mom, Ren, called Northwestern University, hoping to find examples of upstanding individuals to model respectful behavior for middle schoolers. Northwestern officials put Ren in touch with just the right person: Maureen Palchak, NU’s Assistant Athletic Director for Community Relations, knew exactly what to do. In short order, members of Northwestern’s football team stopped by Gabe’s school to hang out with him during lunch and chat with his classmates -- some of whom had given Gabe a hard time.
One of those football players was Jeff Budzien, then a 5th year senior and Northwestern University’s star kicker.
Budzien was again at this year’s event – but this time, Gabe was the star. As students filled the auditorium for each program (one for 6th graders, another for 7th graders), Gabe’s mom watched her son, exchanging warm, knowing glances every now and then. Once everyone was seated, Gabe became the master of ceremonies and kicked off the program:
“My name is Gabe Freeman and I’m a 7th grader here at Nichols. I’ve invited some friends here today to talk to you about bullying. I believe all students should feel welcome at school and never be afraid to be themselves. I hope you will learn something today that is helpful in your life. And remember, BE BRAVE.”
Gabe walked proudly past Budzien -- who gave him a high five -- then took a seat in the front row.
The NU athletes introduced themselves, then encouraged students to break into groups of three and four. “Try to find the things you have in common with others,” they said, “but don’t just ask, ‘Who likes pizza?’ Ask, ‘Who likes pepperoni pizza? Get really specific. Get to know something deeper about each other. Find out what you have in common.” My small group included Gabe, his mom and Budzien; who would have guessed we all love pasta with red sauce, Nicki Minaj and dancing?
The athletes then led a lively game of Jeopardy with headings like “Random Acts of Kindness”, “Cyber-bullying” and “What Can You Do?” and queried the crowd about bullying statistics. For instance, did you know that 71% of students report bullying being an issue?
Marisa Bast, a Northwestern University senior and All-American softball player who created the program that eventually became ROARR – Reach Out And Reinforce Respect – led the discussion with the support of her peers. She described how her softball coach insists on having the team work with a psychologist to boost team morale and positive thinking. The team’s required to complete two acts of random kindness every day. When Bast asked students for examples of random acts of kindness, responses included “opening a door”, “helping an old lady”, “standing up for someone when they’re too afraid to stand up for themselves”, “lending a pencil”, and “helping with homework”.
Before the end of each program, students asked the Northwestern athletes a few questions, though sometimes the subject strayed from bullying. For example, one girl asked Budzien, “Why do football players smack each others’ butts?”
Budzien kept his cool as he and former teammate, defensive lineman Max Chapman, laughed. “I don’t know,” Budzien answered, raising his arms. “I just kick the ball. It usually goes in, and then someone hits my butt.” The kids laughed.
“Maybe it’s the pants,” Chapman said, and the crowd went wild.
After the program, I asked Gabe how he felt getting up on stage and addressing such a huge audience.
“I felt a little shaky,” he said.
His mom walked over to us as I asked Gabe to describe respect.
“I don’t know,” he said, matter of fact. “I guess respect is just being nice.”
Gabe’s mom then added her own thoughts. “You don’t need to be best
friends with everybody or even hang out with someone. Just treat them with