Sweethearts and Heroes Inspires Heritage Students to Change the World
By Edie Johnson
At Heritage Middle School in New Windsor, a giant leap up the wall of the school gym by a randomly selected teenager, was one of several life changing experiences this week for hundreds of students who attended an anti-bully presentation by the group, Sweethearts and Heroes. Presented by motivational speakers Tom Murphy and Rick Yarosh, the group has inspired scores of audiences across the United States with their stories of potential tragedies resulting from bullying who have gained strength and achieved great things when given hope to rise above seemingly impossible challenges.
Heritage students saw the effect that some encouragement could have as they, along with Murphy, stood and cheered on another student: “Give it ALL you’ve got!” as he tried to jump as high as he could up the gym wall. The third jump was the charm, leaping about a foot higher than his first and second attempts. This was the ideal example of what Veteran Rick Yarosh, seriously injured in “Operation Iraqi Freedom”, means when he talks about what a little bit of hope can do. The veteran has been teaching during the 10 years since his Bradley Army tank was blown up by an IED in Baghdad. As a result, 60 percent of his body was burned, and his leg was so badly broken that it had to be amputated. Over the years, Yarosh has gone from school to school describing the many instances where a situation seemed darkest, and how a little hope from friends lit the way. Young people are taking up the mantra, saying “Because we will not give up and we have HOPE, we can change the world.” This week hundreds of new students learned how to put action to the Sweethearts for Heroes’ acronym, ACT, which means just what it says. Murphy challenged these youths by bringing them up to the front of the auditorium, sprinkling a little of what he called “fairy dust” on them, throwing a neon green cape over their shoulders and telling them “Show us what a Superhero does when they see another young person being bullied.” Demonstrating it at first he swooped around in front of them like Superman or the Green Arrow, and exemplified how to whisk someone out of danger. The students practiced the skills enthusiastically, one simply putting his arm around a bully victim and saying “Come on with me.” Another student refused to participate when Tom urged her to help him bully a co-student, “Let’s go make him cry.” These hundreds of Heritage Middle School students, were entertained, eager to expand their anti-bullying skills, and left with a playbook full of good anti-bullying and kindness tools.
Kindness was not the only thing they practiced. Murphy gave some history about the word “bully”, which actually dates back to the 1500’s. It originally meant “sweetheart”, hence the group’s name, Sweetheart and Heroes. In the 1600’s the word took on a different meaning, a more positive slant in which a good friend would really PUSH or BULLY you into better performance. Only in the 1900’s did bullying come to mean an intent to cause actual physical or emotional harm. Rick Yarosh gave several examples of how friends had given him hope the times he felt like giving up, like when he escaped the tank and jumped to the ground covered with flames. On fire and with a broken leg he could not even roll to try to put the fire out. After a few minutes of thinking he was going to die, he tried rolling in the other direction and fell into a ditch where there was just enough water to douse the fire, and his friends lifted him up and to a waiting helicopter. Then there was his positive “bullying” friend, his physical therapist. One day when Yarosh asked if he would ever walk again and the therapist replied, “You’re going to walk today….. I’m coming back to take your walker away”. Not only did Yarosh walk that day, he went up stairs the next day. His black lab service dog, “Amos” is also a hero of sorts. Raised by prison inmates, Amos performs many tasks that Yarosh can’t do himself because of his damaged hands. Amos gave hope to prisoners, and learned some great tricks along the way that lighten the mood during the group’s motivational talks. Yarosh demonstrated how Amos could respond to the order “Put your hands up”, and even “Stand with your face against the wall, you need to be patted down!” Does he ever feel sad about his injury? Yarosh said he wouldn’t even think twice about it. Because, if he had to relive that time and not be injured, he would also have to give up all of the years of teaching young people about hope.
One of the most inspirational stories of the day described by Tom, was about a science experiment performed during the 1950’s. Scientists put rats, one at a time, in a half-filled water bucket. Every one of them sank and drowned within 15 seconds. Then they put one in and pulled him out after he sunk to the bottom and was barely alive. They dried him off, let him rest for a bit, and put him back in the water. This time the rat kept swimming, for hours and hours, because he had learned about HOPE.
The Heritage Middle School teenagers, alternately quiet as a mouse and then exuberantly jumping and yelling to be included in the training sessions were clearly inspired. When Tom Murphy asked 60 percent of them to raise their hands, and then told them “That is how many students and teachers say they believe that people who are bullied DESERVE it”. They gasped and quickly took their hands down. Murphy said there are 100,000 students a day in the US who do not go to school, because they are scared. But this group, armed with a set of proven anti-bully techniques as well as good “Bully” techniques to build each other up, clamored to be given one of the Sweetheart Hero shirts the speakers had brought, and left the auditorium standing tall and well-prepared to go and spread some HOPE.