Gabe & Izzy speaking with youth

Gabe & Izzy teach kids not to bully

Tue, Nov 29, 2005
By Edie Grossfield
The Post-Bulletin

Sitting silent on the gymnasium floor at Bamber Valley Elementary School, eyes focused on the woman in the wheelchair before them, about 360 fourth- and fifth-grade students listened to a heart-wrenching personal account of what it's like to be bullied at school.

The woman telling the story was Gabriele (Gabe) Ford, who at age 13 began showing the signs of a progressive neuromuscular disease called Friedreich's ataxia. The disease makes it difficult for Ford to speak and move, and eventually landed the once-athletic youngster in a wheelchair.

It also made her an easy target for teasing and physical abuse by classmates throughout middle school and, to some extent, in high school.

Today, at age 26, Ford is traveling around the country speaking to school children about the long-lasting psychological effects of bullying and what children should do when confronted with a bully.

Beginning in eighth grade, when Ford transferred to a new school in Fenton, Mich., fellow students who noticed her slurred speech and awkward walk called her names, tripped and shoved her in the hall and ostracized her in the lunch room and on the playground.

"I kept this all to myself," she told the Bamber Valley students. "I should have told someone, like my mom or a teacher."

Enter Izzy the hound

When Ford presents her story to children, voice shaky and hand trembling as she holds the microphone, there's always a faithful companion at her side. It is Izzy, Ford's 80-pound black-and-tan coonhound, the dog that inspired her a few years after high school to come out of debilitating self-isolation.

The woman-and-dog duo have become known as Gabe & Izzy. They have been featured in several magazines and on the Animal Planet television series "A Pet Story." Their strong bond was, in part, forged by Izzy's own health problems, including a liver disease and a muscular disease similar to Ford's.

"It was a good presentation because everybody here will know that bullying is not a good thing to do," said Bamber Valley fifth-grader Tyler Bruinsma after Ford's speech and slide show.

"It's pretty sad that she was bullied like that," added Bruinsma's classmate Hannah Poppen.

Poppen said she has never been bullied, but if it ever happens she will "tell a friend and we'd go and tell a teacher or the principal or somebody."

Copyright 2005 Post-Bulletin Company, LLC
Reprinted with permission