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Willmar fourth-graders learn about bullying from people who've experienced it

Students from Focus House, a program to help people with special needs prepare for living on their own, have spoken to fourth-graders in the past month about bullying and how to address it. Many of the young adults from Focus House said they've been bullied in the past.

Ambassadors for Respect Nimo Moge, 18, from right to left, Riana Halvorson, 20, and Quinn Hogan, 21, share a laugh while speaking Thursday, May 5, 2022, at Kennedy Elementary School in Willmar to Lisa Devine's fourth-grade classroom about bullying.
Ambassadors for Respect Nimo Moge, 18, from right to left, Riana Halvorson, 20, and Quinn Hogan, 21, share a laugh while speaking Thursday, May 5, 2022, at Kennedy Elementary School in Willmar to Lisa Devine's fourth-grade classroom about bullying.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune
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WILLMAR — Fourth-graders at Kennedy Elementary School in Willmar have gotten an education in bullying and acceptance in the past month.

And what better teachers than people who know what it’s like to be bullied and called names?

Students from the Willmar Public Schools’ Focus House program have spoken in each of the Kennedy fourth-grade classrooms in recent weeks, teaching students about ways they can advocate for themselves and others.

Students shred index cards with hurtful words or phrases they've either said to others or had said to them during an Ambassadors for Respect presentation in Lisa Devine's fourth-grade classroom at Kennedy Elementary School on Thursday, May 5, 2022.
Students shred index cards with hurtful words or phrases they have either said to others or had said to them. The exercise was part of an Ambassadors for Respect presentation in Lisa Devine's fourth-grade classroom at Kennedy Elementary School on Thursday, May 5, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Focus House is a program for students with special needs who have graduated from high school. It helps people with a variety of disabilities learn skills they’ll need to live on their own in the community. Participants have paying jobs and learn how to budget, pay bills, cook and clean.

In a recent presentation for teacher Lisa Devine's class, five presenters from Focus House wore T-shirts that said, “Ambassadors for Respect,” and offered the fourth-graders a list of three things they could do to battle bullying:

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  • Include others. Invite a child sitting alone to have lunch with you or play with you.
  • Use person-first language. Don’t say “disabled person” or “blind person.” Rather, say “person with a disability” or “person who is blind.” Even better, use a person’s name without any label.
  • Advocate for yourself and others. Ask for what you need, and stand up for yourself or others.
Fourth graders Michael Jaco Ramirez, from left, and Jaxson Schiesser complete an assignment related to bullying during a visit from the Ambassadors for Respect at Kennedy Elementary School on Thursday, May 5, 2022.
Fourth-graders Michael Jaco Ramirez, left, and Jaxson Schiesser complete an assignment related to bullying during a visit from the Ambassadors for Respect at Kennedy Elementary School in Willmar on Thursday, May 5, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

The group used a PowerPoint digital slide presentation, videos and activities to get their message across to the fourth-graders.

The Ambassadors for Respect program is a project of the 50-year-old Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. Its goal is to develop partnerships to combat bullying in communities.

The Focus House group told the fourth-graders that people are more alike than different, and they shared a little of their own stories.

Hana Mahamud, 18, who has cerebral palsy, said she was bullied for her religion and for her disability when she was younger. “Kids would call me stupid and say I’m not smart, which is not true,” she said.

When she was in ninth grade, her family moved to Willmar, and she was bullied less in a smaller community.

“If any of you have bullied others, please stop,” she said. “It’s a bad thing.”

Hana Mahamud, 18, from left, and Deqa Mohamed, 19, speak to the fourth-grade classroom of Lisa Devine at Kennedy Elementary School about bullying on Thursday, May 5, 2022.
Hana Mahamud, 18, left, and Deqa Mohamed, 19, speak to the fourth-grade classroom of Lisa Devine at Kennedy Elementary School in Willmar about bullying on Thursday, May 5, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

Quinn Hogan, 21, told his story through a series of signs he held up in a video, asking for patience, saying, “communicating takes my brain a little bit longer.” Everyone has things to say, even if they can’t say them, he said.

Fourth-graders were asked to think of hurtful words they’d been called or maybe said to someone else by mistake. “We’re not going to tell anybody,” said Focus House teacher Suzanne Moyers. “Your teacher’s not going to know; no one’s going to know.”

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After writing the words down, they were invited to bring them to a shredder, manned by Hogan.

Asked afterward how the shredding felt, the class came up with "satisfied," "happy," "excited," "good," "epic," "awesome" and "amazing."

“Language is powerful,” said Riana Halvorson, 20. “Words matter, and we use words to be kind.” She said the people from Focus House don't want other kids to feel they way they have in the past.

The whole group talked about ways kids could advocate for themselves or for other people.

“It’s OK to ask for help,” said Nimo Moge, 18.

Suggestions included walking away, telling the person to stop, talking to a teacher, distracting the bully and being a friend or eating lunch with someone who’s alone.

They talked about random acts of kindness, too. The fourth-graders were asked to think of an act of kindness and write it on a yellow star they’d been given. The stars were hung on a long string in the classroom.

Kodiak Skinaway, center, participates in an Ambassadors for Respect presentation before Lisa Devine's fourth-grade classroom on Thursday, May 5, 2022.
Kodiak Skinaway, center, participates in an Ambassadors for Respect presentation before Lisa Devine's fourth-grade classroom in Willmar on Thursday, May 5, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune

To close the presentation, students were asked to stand if they wanted to become ambassadors. They pledged, “As ambassadors I promise to include others, use person first language and advocate for myself and others.”

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Moyers told them, “You are now superheroes.”

After the presentation, the Focus House group gathered to review what had been the second of five presentations.

The students had been nervous as they prepared to speak to the Kennedy students, Moyers said, “but I thought you guys did beautifully.”

Halvorson told Deqa Mohamed, 19, that she was proud of her and the work she had put in to be able to say "advocacy," a word that had been difficult for her to say.

Most of them had done things they’d never done before in the presentations. This year they were in charge of running the PowerPoint presentation and talked in front of a live audience.

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Last year, their presentation had been done remotely, using videos, but they were glad to do it in person this year.

With the in-person program, “they interacted with us,” Mahamud said.

At Focus House, they talk about getting out of their comfort zones, Moyers said.

“We talk a lot about sticking your toe in the water and at least trying,” she said. “They keep doing it, we keep challenging them, and they keep exceeding.”

Programs like Ambassadors for Respect “shows them what we see them capable of doing,” Moyers said.

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: lvanderwerf@wctrib.com or phone 320-214-4340
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