Former UFC fighter Tom Murphy stood in front of a group of first and second graders who were giggling with their whole bodies. Murphy had just ripped off his pink button-down shirt to reveal a Mr. Incredible t-shirt underneath. It was all part of an engaging, interactive presentation on bullying.
Murphy’s organization, Sweethearts and Heroes, presented to small groups at JFK Elementary School all day on Thursday. Unlike many discussions on bullying, theirs focuses on every member of the bullying cycle — not just telling kids not to be a bully.
A few minutes into the presentation, Murphy brought out Rick Yarosh, a retired Sergeant with the United States Army who was severely injured by an IED in Iraq. Yarosh was burned over 60% of his body, had his right leg amputated below the knee, lost both ears, his nose, multiple fingers, and most of the function in both hands. Students were surprised by his appearance but quickly took to him as he spoke about how every single person in the room was different.
As the presentation continued, students were taught an A-B-C Action Plan for dealing with bullies that included three superpowers. Students were chosen to act out these superpowers in a role-playing exercise with Murphy and Yarosh. The audience watched closely as their peers, who got to wear a cape and mask, pretended to fly in and take a person away, become a buddy, and confront the bully or call for help.
Physical education teacher Eric Buzzetto first learned of Sweethearts and Heroes at a phys ed conference. He really connected with the message, as he had been bullied when he was younger because of a stutter.
“The break out session at the conference was really helpful,” Buzzetto said. “I was bullied in third grade. The woman next to me said she was bullied two weeks ago. Someone else said in college. It was all different ages and it made you realize that bullying will never go away. If you try to stop it, you’re going to lose every time. But they have this whole different approach.”
Instead of placing all of the focus on the bully, the Sweethearts and Heroes program delivers messages of bystander empowerment, empathy, and leadership. It creates an awareness of what bullying is and how students can recognize it and push back against it. It encourages students to become heroes and reach out to kids who are being bullied.
From the looks of the presentations at JFK, the method works. Students were actively participating and not at all bored. They were even able to repeat back what they had learned at the end. To seal the deal on an already enjoyable experience, students were allowed to pet Amos, Yarosh’s service dog, on the way back to their classes.