The contagious laughter may seem out of place for a support group for bullied children, but it's exactly what Stranahan Elementary student Madi Shook wants to happen at the monthly gatherings. They are meant to give bullied children a fun, safe place to find encouragement and be themselves.
"I hope it helps them because first they know that they can do something about being bullied," she said. "They have a voice, they can speak up, and there's always help out there."
Madi, 10, of Sylvania, started Bullfrogs Against Bullying with her friend Justin Harrison, 13, of Brunswick, Ohio. The two met several years ago through Warriors For the Children, a motorcycle group that supports abused, bullied, and neglected children.
Both had been bullied, and at times shunned, by their peers, Madi said. But it wasn't until recently that they each spoke up about it to their parents and teachers.
"We didn't really deal with it. We just let people bully us," she said. "We held all those feelings inside, and then we finally opened up and we told somebody and we did something about it."
Talking about being bullied helped Madi gain the confidence she needed to stand up for herself, but she wanted to do more.
She knew she wasn't the only student being bullied, and she wondered if sharing her story would help other children speak up.
She started a Toledo-area Bullfrogs Against Bullying chapter while Justin started one in Brunswick. Children of all ages gather at the monthly meetings to socialize, do a fun activity, and support one another. There's always an adult on hand — Madi's mother, Kelli Shook, is a certified parent and child-life coach — but it's largely peer-driven.
"It's a place that they can come and they know they're not judged, they know that nobody is going to bully them," Shook said. "They have the opportunity to tell another person their age or a kid who's older than them about what's happening to them at school or at home."
Madi and her mom either invite a speaker to each meeting or pick a topic for the group to discuss, such as self-esteem or mindfulness. If a child does reveal they're being bullied, then an adult can step in and help, Shook said.
The Sylvania community is no stranger to bullying, and a recent incident led to criminal charges.
In April, Sylvania teenagers Mitchell Miller and Hunter McKie were sentenced in Lucas County Juvenile Court to 25 hours of community service after the pair admitted to assault and violating the Safe Schools Act. The case stemmed from a February incident in which the two boys gave schoolmate Isaiah Meyer-Crothers, who has developmental disabilities, a candy push pop after they wiped it in a bathroom urinal.
Bullying can happen to anyone, no matter what their age or background, Ms. Shook said. It can happen at school, at home, on sports teams, or online. Cyberbullying can be especially difficult to deal with because it allows the bullies to reach their targets any time, she added.
"It's probably a little bit of everything," Madi said. "I think it's cyberbullying a little bit on social media apps, but it's mostly face-to-face."
Bullfrogs Against Bullying isn't a school-sponsored group, but Madi's principal at Stranahan Elementary is pleased to see one of his students taking initiatives outside the classroom.
"Especially with any kind of anti-bullying message, it's great when kids take it upon themselves to help other kids who might be dealing with issues in school or out of school," Principal Jeremy Bauer said.
Bauer added Stranahan Elementary holds a weekly 30-minute PAWS lesson, which stands for Positive, Accountable, Well-mannered, and Showing Self-control. It's an effort to continue a discussion about how to treat others throughout the school year.
Shook said the only way to end bullying is to address the issue community-wide, and she is hopeful Sylvania is on the right track.
"Everybody has to come together and work on it because it happens everywhere," she said. "It's not the school's fault, it's not the parent's fault, it's just something that everybody has to deal with."
Attendance at the group's monthly meetings has been thin, but the Shooks are confident word will spread and more children will show up.
Shook said she has been in touch with parents in Findlay and in Indiana who found the Toledo group on Facebook and want to start their own Bullfrogs Against Bullying chapters.
Bullfrogs Against Bullying's next meeting is at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 23 at the King Road branch library. Email email@example.com for more information.
Contact Sarah Elms at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6103 or on Twitter @BySarahElms.
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