Providing Safety and Acceptance for Every Child
Blog by Charlie Davis
President and CEO
YMCA of Pierce and Kitsap Counties
I have read and heard devastating accounts of bullying over the years, and the stories are horrifying. For me, it was the Dunn brothers. When I was in third grade, they stalked me on my way home from school, and I would run for my life whenever I passed their house. Fear gripped me knowing I had to confront them every afternoon. This went on for over a year until the neighborhood hero, Gerry Miserendino, set things straight and I was finally freed from the Dunn brothers.
The impact on a victim is devastating, but we sometimes forget the impact bullying has on the victim’s parents, too. A few weeks ago, I was leaving an event in downtown Tacoma when a man called out my name. It is somewhat unsettling when someone knows you, but you don’t know them, and I could tell he really wanted to get my attention. After he introduced himself, he jumped into a story about his 6-year-old daughter. She was autistic and was bullied in school. It was clear how much pain these bullies had inflicted. He tried to prepare himself for the challenges his daughter might face, but he was in no way ready for the ostracism his daughter experienced.
I was heartbroken to hear him describe how he felt powerless to protect his daughter, and I began to wonder why he was sharing this with me. It soon became apparent. Fortunately, his story took a turn for the better as his daughter’s life was beginning to improve. He chased me down that morning to let me know his daughter had found acceptance in a YMCA summer program. Sure, it was great to learn how the Y played a role in his daughter’s happiness, but what stays with me was how happy this father was about this turn of events, and how overjoyed he was to share it.
Walking away from that encounter, I couldn't help but reflect on the struggles I experienced when my own daughter dealt with bullies. Saying that my daughter was devastated is an understatement; her whole life turned upside down. Meetings with teachers and school administrators never produced change for my daughter. We even switched schools, but sadly, she was never able to recover. The impact of bullying ravaged our family. A parent desperately wants their child to be safe from pain, and being unable to ensure that makes you feel completely helpless.
A few weeks ago, I received a letter from a mom of a child in our Before and After School program. It was a lengthy letter; she took great care to describe the anguish she felt as a parent watching her son endure bullying. It sounded all too similar to the account shared by the father of the young autistic girl, and to my own experience with my daughter.
Her son wouldn’t wear his prescription glasses for fear he would be taunted. By not wearing the glasses, his performance in school deteriorated. She tried to transfer her son to another school, but there was already a waiting list. To make matters worse, as a single parent it was difficult for her to find time to meet with teachers and school administrators, and even when she did, the meetings did not offer any hope of changing the pattern of harassment.
She observed her son slipping into depression; it reached a tipping point when he cried that he would rather die than go back to school. Miraculously, she received notification that an opening was available at another school. Though there was apprehension about the change, she thought, “Anything had to be better, right?”
It is not easy to be dropped off at a child care site at 6:30 in the morning, especially when you are the new kid and have been living a nightmare for the past year-and-a-half. A Y staff person welcomed him into the program, which seemed to diffuse some of his fear.
Even so, she worried about her son all day because she knew he was very fragile; however, when she picked him later that day, she could not believe what she saw. Her son was playing – and laughing – with other kids. She literally broke down in tears of joy and relief. All the way home, her son could not stop talking about how much fun that day had been for him.
That was over a year ago, and today her son is thriving. The Y staff gave her son what he needed – and what she wanted so desperately for him – a place to be safe and to be accepted. Knowing he had that meant the world to her.
For many children and teenagers, bullying is a constant in their lives, as it was for my daughter. Social media and smartphones allow bullies to follow their victims everywhere, but the presence of a compassionate adult can provide a place of safety and acceptance. I never told my parents that I was being terrorized every day – I thought it would get worse if they “fought my battles.” I do know that having a caring adult like Gerry Miserendino in my life changed and saved me. Hearing how the Y provided the care and guidance to help these two children gives me hope for other kids and families. Caring adults change the course of young people’s lives. You can be one of them.
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