Family

Is kindness the solution to bullying?

By: David Eddie

Photography by Jeff Coulson Author: Canadian Living Credits: Photography by Jeff Coulson

Family

Is kindness the solution to bullying?

By: David Eddie
You know those extremely positive, upbeat people who say, "Everything is a gift"? Surely some things are just a bummer, no matter how you slice them. But if ever anyone embodied the "setbacks are blessings in disguise" philosophy, it’s Joe Drexler.

Joe’s "gift" was a pretty major road apple, a humiliating setback any parent—especially a hockey parent—could relate to. In 1999, the transport company Joe was working for went under, and suddenly he and his then-wife Christine (and their four children) were drowning in debt. This difficult circumstance was rendered heartbreaking when, one day, Joe realized he couldn’t sign Samantha, his hockey-loving daughter, up for her favourite sport. It wasn’t a matter of borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, moving money around, or ratcheting up his debt load further. He simply couldn’t swing it.

"My credit cards, my line of credit—everything was maxed out," he says. "I just didn’t have the $475 it would cost for her to play that year. For Samantha to miss hockey, it broke my heart. But I had to make that hard choice."

It didn’t end there. After the registration deadline passed, the coach phoned. He wanted Sam back on the team. Joe hemmed and hawed, but the coach kept digging for answers. Finally, Joe told him that he just didn’t have the money. The coach grew thoughtful, hung up, then phoned again half an hour later. Someone who preferred not to be identified had donated the money so his daughter could play hockey. "It was like a punch in the heart," says Joe. "I couldn’t understand why this total stranger, this anonymous person, would do that for me."

Even now, as he recounts the story 15 years later, Joe seems to get a little choked up. He pulls out a laminated picture from that year. Samantha, a fierce-looking threefoot- tall blond in giant padded shorts and a helmet, stick on the ice, looks defiantly through her face cage toward the camera. Joe carries the photo in his wallet to remind himself of the power of a single act of kindness.

That generosity, he says, ignited his passion to give back. When he hung up the phone, he turned to his wife and said, "That’s what I want to do for the rest of my life." And he’s been paying that act of kindness forward ever since.

How sports can help kids deal with bullying
In 2008, upon discovering that many kids don’t participate in sport because their parents can’t afford it, Joe started Be the Game, a program aimed at "building strong kids from the inside out" through sports camps. Eventually, he expanded his program into schools where a funny thing happened. Parents, educators, coaches and principals kept asking, "Hey, Joe. What you do is great, but can you do anything to help us with the problem of bullying?" Joe realized how widespread and deep-seated the problem was, and turned his personal energies toward addressing bullying.

With the advent of social media, bullying is thornier and more pervasive than ever. "When we were kids, we were able to go to our rooms, shut the door and be safe," says Joe, who was bullied for two years in grade school. Now, if there’s a computer or smartphone in that room, it could be the worst place to go. Amanda Todd, the British Columbia teen whose YouTube diary documented her attempts to escape her bullies, transferred schools several times. According to her mother, Carol Todd, the torment continued no matter where Amanda went.

Carol says bullies, when confronted, always retreat behind the same statements: "It was just a joke!" and "We didn’t know they would take it seriously." "They don’t realize the extent to which their comments emotionally hurt their targets," says Carol.

What do you do about a problem that is so difficult to define? Joe’s approach is multipronged, to say the least. In a donated truck filled with sponsored fuel, he crisscrosses the country, visiting school auditoriums and classrooms, and speaking to kids about bullying.

What he tells them is (or should be) self-evident. "You own your actions. You are the person you choose to be every day." His delivery gets the message through to the kids—you can see it. He has natural authority. When he begins to speak, kids hush and settle down without being asked. He speaks, simply but forcefully, about "the power of influence, words and kindness." Part of his program is the 21-Day Challenge, whereby kids are encouraged to perform and write down one act of kindness every day. Joe’s team has collected more than 700,000 recorded acts of kindness so far.

Acts of kindness are a key element in his approach, much more effective at changing bullying behaviour in schools than merely lecturing kids and browbeating them with statistics. In his Ambassador program, certain kids are selected to become leaders all year long. Starting next year, two Be the Game "Kind Every Time" academic scholarships will be awarded based on leadership, mentorship and community service. Joe also has a minor sports team kit, which includes messages from several professional NHL players, to encourage parents, coaches and players to "stand tall against bullying in sports."

Fighting bullies with kindness
Perhaps the most surprising and even revolutionary aspect of the Joe Drexler message is a simple gesture. He often tells the story of his childhood bully, Patrick. (Of course, he remembers his name.) At 10, Joe was so terrified of him, he wanted to quit school. He went to his father, who told Joe that quitting wasn’t an option and suggested another approach: "Apologize to him."

The next day, Joe saw Patrick waiting for him. Instead of running away, he approached, knees shaking, and said, "Look, I don’t know what I’ve done to upset you, but I’m sorry." And he extended a hand for Patrick to shake. After what seemed like a lifetime, Patrick shook his hand and said, "I’m sorry, too." The two became friends, and Patrick stopped picking on other kids. Joe is quick to add that he is not advocating for kids to start apologizing to their bullies. He recounts his experience so that others know bullies can be turned around.

Once, Joe asked a class to raise their hands if they thought they did enough to be kind. One boy’s hands remained in his lap, and Joe asked him why. Eventually the Grade 5 student said, "Mr. Joe, I think maybe I need to work harder at being nice to people." Later, the child’s teacher confirmed he was indeed a challenging student. But he changed his ways. "It’s learned behaviour," says Joe. "Kids don’t want to hurt one another. All it takes is one person to believe in that kid. Students need to know that people do believe in them, people will stand with them." Because of bullying’s long-term effects, mental health is a massive concern, and Joe believes that one day, in our lifetime, we will learn to manage bullying better. "Knowledge is power," says Joe. If anyone can help make a difference, it’s Joe Drexler, one act of kindness at a time.

Learn to read the behavioural and emotional signs of bullying.
                                               
This story was originally titled "Game Changer" in the November 2014 issue.
           
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Is kindness the solution to bullying?

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