A Lesson In Bullying

By Rene Rosencrantz - The Flint Journal

Bruises on her legs spoke when Gabrielle Ford didn't want to.

The then-Lake Fenton High School student, now 23, could only tell the truth when her mother asked where the bruises had come from.

"I had no other explanation," Ford of Fenton told students at Clio High School. "I hadn't told anyone about the bullying and teasing I had been experiencing, but when my mom saw the bruises, I had to tell her what happened."

When confronted, Ford finally told how students at Lake Fenton would trip her in the hallways, say mean things to her and how one boy would even hit her legs when he sat by her in art class.

"I've blocked out most of what was said to me because it was just too painful," Ford said. "But I'll never forget."

Ford, along with her dog, Izzy, was at Clio High School recently to speak to stepsister Lisa Hillman's 10th-grade English classes about her life experiences and the effects of bullying. The class has been working on a unit about bullying and school violence.

"With the unit we've been doing, I knew that listening to Gabe's story would have a strong impact on my classes," Lisa Hillman said. "We've read a book about it, but I think when you actually hear from someone who's experienced it - and see how she's overcome it - that's really incredible."

Bullying is a common adolescent plague, but it wasn't the only struggle Ford had to face. At the age of 12, she was diagnosed with Fredriech's ataxia, a neuromuscular disease. When she became a freshman at Lake Fenton, the disease's effects really began to take their toll, causing her speech to slow and her steps to be uncertain.

In an environment Ford described as "cliquey," differences like hers made it hard to make friends.

"I did have some close friends. Many of them were outcasts, too, but I was grateful to have them," she said.

As her disease worsened, however, so did her relationship with her friends. After graduation, few of the people she had known as friends would return her calls.

"I think they were embarrassed of me - being my friend took extra time and patience," she said.

Depressed by her circumstances - her disease made it increasingly difficult to get around and she refused to use a wheelchair - Ford began to isolate herself, rarely leaving her home.

When Ford expressed interest in getting a dog, her mother, Rhonda Hillman, agreed, hoping it would help her daughter. After doing some research, Ford settled on a black and tan coonhound.

"I had no idea the impact that she (the dog) would have," Rhonda Hillman said.

The impact began when the family found a coon hound breeder who knew that Ford had a neuromuscular disease, but didn't know what it entailed.

"The breeder called one day, and only she could get away with this because in the family, we were never even allowed to mention the word wheelchair,' - but she is such a nice lady. She said, I know you have a degenerative disease, and I need to let you know that if there is going to be a wheelchair ever in your future it has to be around when your dog is a puppy. Dogs have to grow up around them or they can get motion sickness,' " Rhonda Hillman said.

With that, Ford agreed to start using a wheelchair, something her family had been trying to get her to do for years.

"I would have done anything for (Izzy)," Ford told the class.

That statement is especially true now, after the two have taken a parallel journey together.

When Izzy was just a puppy, she developed a liver condition and the symptoms mirrored that of her owner. The puppy would stumble and become fatigued.

Now Izzy has been diagnosed with a muscle disease too. So far, the pair's health is holding steady.

"It's been one amazing coincidence after another," Rhonda Hillman said.

Their story has been detailed on an Animal Planet TV show called "Pet Story," which first ran in 2001 and has had subsequent showings on the network.

When students in the class asked Ford who her hero is, Ford is quick to point to the dog curled up by her feet.

"It doesn't matter how bad my day has been, Izzy always makes me feel better," Ford said.

Recently, the young woman who once wouldn't leave her home, flew to San Diego to speak at the National Ataxia Foundation Convention. Izzy also went and was checked out by a veterinary neurologist.

Ford also hopes to talk to more students about the disease she's overcoming, her faithful companion and the bullying she had to rise above.

"There are times I still feel bad and I don't want to go out," she said. "I know I can't be that way though."

Rene Rosencrantz covers weekly news and features for the Flint Journal. She can be reached at (810) 766-6331 or rrosencrantz@flintjournal.com