Bullying victim rallies students

February 24, 2007
By: Michelle Swartz
Monroe News

On Friday, Gabrielle Ford found herself in the one place she didn't think she would ever visit again.

School. That's because the 26-year-old Fenton resident had been a victim of bullying when she attended junior high and high school. Eventually overcoming her fears, she now stands up for fellow victims by telling her story at schools across the country.

She talked to students at Mason Central Elementary School on Friday in hopes of explaining the dangers of bullying others. She spoke to second- and third-graders in one presentation, and then talked to fourth- and fifth- graders at a second presentation.

"I don't think they know how hurtful it can be," she said about bullies. "After graduation, I became depressed and lonely. I hid in my bedroom and never wanted to go out in public. I was ashamed of myself and embarrassed."

Gabe & Izzy Evening News photo by NICK PIRONIO
Students of Mason Central Elementary School listen to motivational speaker Gabrielle Ford as she talks about her life with a rare genetic muscle disease that has caused her to be bullied throughout her school years and eventually affected the rest of her life. Ford also brought along her dog Izzy who also has a rare genetic muscle disease which has helped Ford in finding support through her dog.

Ms. Ford did not get teased until she was in eighth grade, the same time she began experiencing health problems. Symptoms of slurred speech and difficulty in walking prompted her to seek help. She was diagnosed with Friedreich's Ataxia, a rare neuromuscular disease, when she was 12 years old.

The disease causes a person to lose control of balance and coordination. Eventually, a walker or wheelchair is needed.

"I was devastated," she said about the diagnosis. "I couldn't do any of the activities I was involved in anymore. I had been dancing for eight years and I also played soccer and golf."

At the same time, she began attending a new school.

"Kids noticed I was different and some of them said mean things to me," she recalled to the second- and third-graders during the presentation.

Ms. Ford detailed many accounts of being bullied, such as being intentionally tripped in the hallways, called names and shoved in the hallways, causing her books to fall to the floor.

"Trying to pick up my books was not easy," she said as she sat in her wheelchair in front of the 100-plus students in the audience.

She offered sound advice for the young students.

"Don't say or do anything mean to anyone, no matter what clothes they are wearing or the color of their skin," she said. "No one should be made fun of. Everyone should be treated with respect."

Ms. Ford added that if you are being bullied, then tell someone you trust, like a teacher, friend or family member. standers should act, too, she said. They must tell someone if they see someone being bullied.

She admitted that the only true friend she had after high school was Izzy, a coonhound. Ironically, the dog showed similar signs of Ms. Ford's disease. Izzy eventually was diagnosed with a muscle disease. Along with her mother, Rhonda Hillman, step-father, Rick Hillman, and sister, Madeline Hillman, Ms. Ford also brings her dog to her presentations.

"It has bonded us," she said about the similar diseases. "Izzy has helped me get over my fears I had from when I was bullied."

Fielding questions from students, one was whether or not she has gotten past the hurtful experiences.

"I'll never forget, but I do forgive because they were young kids at the time," she answered.

Her mother also offered advice to the students.

"Bullying is a choice you make," she said. "We all have the right to be different, whether you're tall, short, overweight, or thin."

After the 40-minute presentation, it was obvious the message had not fallen on deaf ears. As students filed out of the gymnasium, many students hugged or thanked Ms. Ford for her courage to speak about her experiences.

Others shared what they had learned.

"Bullying hurts people's feelings," said third-grader Emily Folk. "You shouldn't pick on someone for what they look like."

Douglas Cousino, also a third-grade student, shared what he had taken from the presentation.

"If you see someone being bullied, you should stand up for that person," he explained.

Jill Kominek, treasurer of the Central Elementary Parent Group, helped in the scheduling of the guest speaker.

"We usually host different activities or events but we asked the teachers what they wanted this year. Time and time again, they asked for something about bullying," she said.

Principal Deb McCain was impressed by Ms. Ford's willingness to come forward about the topic.

"I give her a lot of credit for what she does. I was very impressed by her," she said after the presentation. "Bullying is in every school. It's everywhere and it's something kids never forget."

Gabrielle Ford, and her dog Izzy, travel the country talking to students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Her personal story has been featured on the Animal Planet television station. To learn more about Ms. Ford's story, visit www.gabeandizzy.com

Reprinted with permission