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Northwestern Athletes Stand Behind Bullied Student

With his Northwestern University friends by his side, 7th grader Gabe Freeman tackles bullying: "I believe all students should feel welcome at school and never be afraid to be themselves."

Northwestern University star kicker Jeff Budzien and his good friend, Gabe Freeman of Evanston. Photo: Christine Wolf
Northwestern University star kicker Jeff Budzien and his good friend, Gabe Freeman of Evanston. Photo: Christine Wolf
I’m not a sports girl, but last week I found myself surrounded by several athletic Northwestern University students in an auditorium of Nichols Middle School. We were all there for one reason, but it wasn’t sports related. Instead, Gabe Freeman, a 7th grader with disabilities, let his classmates know how important it is to BE BRAVE and stand up to bullies.

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 respect.”

JT February 14, 2014 at 09:34 AM
I've known Gabe and his family for many years, and I can attest that he's an amazing kid that anyone would be proud to call a friend. I'm so thrilled to see that these great NU student athletes came out to participate in this program. Well done, all!
Hyacinth Smith February 14, 2014 at 03:02 PM
It's not that bullying is any worse today. The impulse for cruelty is the same impulse. The only difference is that the tools to achieve that have become more sophisticated.We were about the youngest ones and the older ones would pick on us. When they would bully us, we’d double-team them. We do take bullying seriously and we investigate any incident of bullying. Are my children ever kind to each other? check your child's protection at http://bit.ly/1nctEuL.
lloyd kurtz February 15, 2014 at 09:55 PM
Teaching kids manners and respect for the earth and everything on it would go a long way to ending the bully culture
Sasha Marston February 16, 2014 at 04:25 AM
I think its wonderful that they stand up for the bullied. However there is not always someone to fight for you (besides yourself) in "the real world". Bosses, people at work even people in your family with continue the cycle long after the footballer has left the room. The bullied has to find healthy way to deal with these types because they are everywhere. My suggestion is to keep an eye on the bullies, more often than not you find out that they turn into miserable ugly people, the pleasure is in the long run.
Sheriffchris February 17, 2014 at 11:00 AM
One must stand up for oneself before the perceived problem of bullying can be eradicated.

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