L'ANSE - Bullying is a choice. That's the message Gabrielle "Gabe" Ford and her canine companion, Dinah, delivered to more than 400 students recently at L'Anse Area Schools.
"When I was in class, kids would throw things at me," Ford said while sharing her experiences as a bullying survivor. "They would throw spit wads, paper clips, even the little eraser ends that go on the end of your pencil."
Reaching out to first- through eighth-grade students, Ford shared with them how bullying changed her life. From the eighth grade up until the moment she walked across stage at her high school graduation, Ford endured bullying on a daily basis, multiple times a day.
Gabrielle “Gabe” Ford, allowed students in grades one through eight at L’Anse Area Schools to pet her dog, Dinah, after talking to them recently about bullying and its effects. For nearly nine years, Ford has traveled to schools across the nation, sharing her personal experience in hopes of making a difference. (Houghton Daily Mining Gazette photos by Kelly Fosness)
"I felt targeted because I wasn't like everybody else," she said. "So I was made fun of because I was different."
At the age of 12, Ford was diagnosed with Friedreich's Ataxia, a progressive neuromuscular disease that impacts balance, coordination, muscle strength and eventually placed her in a wheelchair. For a young girl with dreams of becoming a dancer, the reality of her condition was heart-wrenching. However, the cruelty she endured at school had an even more profound effect on her.
"If you have a bruise or a cut, some kind of injury it usually will get better in time, right?" she asked the students. "But if somebody has hurt your feelings by calling you a mean name or spread rumors behind your back, that lasts a long time, doesn't it?"
While it's been years since Ford has been in school, she said the hurtful things classmates said behind her back left an emotional scar that never goes away.
"By sharing my story, I hope that they learn that bullying is not something that happens for a minute and it's funny for a moment," she said before her presentation. "For the person being bullied, it can last a lifetime."
For nearly nine years, Ford has traveled to schools and communities across the nation from her home in downstate Fenton, educating about bullying and its effects. Prior to her arrival, each school receives a DVD, Animal Planet's TV Pet Story "Izzy and Gabe," which provides background on Ford's journey with her companion.
"The story teaches empathy and compassion," said Ford's mother Rhonda Hillman, who is also Ford's manager. "It's about being able to put yourself in their shoes."
Hillman said like any mother, she was devastated when her daughter was first diagnosed.
"Gabe being a dancer, I didn't know how I would ever tell my little girl she'd never dance again," she said. "I didn't actually tell her what her test results were for six months."
The day she shared the results, Hillman said she made her mind up. They weren't going to look back or feel sorry for themselves.
"We were going to go forward and we were going to make every day the best day we had," she said.
Then, Hillman learned of the bullying.
"That actually hurt me worse than the diagnosis because the diagnosis was out of my control and out of anybody's control here on this Earth," she said. "The bullying was the choices students make and it inflicts pain that Gabe should never have had to endure every day for five years, multiple times a day, because she was different. That was very, very, very hurtful."
Following graduation, Ford fell into a deep depression. She started to not care about herself, became withdrawn and wouldn't leave her home unless it was necessary.
"Do you know what my biggest fear was?" she asked. "Running into a former classmate - someone who bullied or made fun of me."
Pulling Ford out of her shell, out into the public, was her best friend Izzy, a black and tan coonhound she adopted in 2000.
"I say a dog is a woman's best friend because that's exactly what I found when I got Izzy," she said. "When I got Izzy I was responsible for her like your parents are responsible for you, right?"
Coincidentally, a few years later, Izzy was diagnosed with a rare muscular disease, similar in many ways to Friedreich's Ataxia. Having to make several trips to the veterinarian, Ford quickly overcame her fear of leaving her home.
"Izzy and I were meant to be," she said. "Everything that she's had to go through is very similar to what I've had to go through."
Izzy traveled to schools across the nation with Ford, up until May 2009 when she passed away.
"Just because Izzy died, it doesn't mean our story did," she said. "Izzy, as I say, still lives on in the 'Today Show,' Animal Planet, and my book, so she's not really gone," she said. "All of the kids that have met her and her story, they'll remember and she'll always live on in my heart."
Ford said her anti-bullying advocacy efforts grew out of her own experience with being bullied and the courage she developed when caring for Izzy.
"I wouldn't be where I am if it wasn't for Izzy because she is the one who helped me overcome my fears," she said.
Dinah, Ford's current long-eared companion, is Izzy's cousin.
Following Ford's presentation, students lined up to pet Dinah and buy a copy of Ford's autobiography, "Still Dancing."
In her book, she chronicles her life with Friedreich's Ataxia and how she became an advocate against school bullying.
"When I was younger, I was in ballet, tap and jazz. My mom has always said that I might not be dancing the way I used to be but I'm dancing in a different way. I'm on stage like I used to be and I'm kind of in the spotlight like I used to be," she said explaining the title for her autobiography. "So, I'm still dancing. That's what she has said."
Ultimately, Ford said bullying is really a choice.
"It's about what you choose to do," she said. "Be the best you can. Make the best choices."
Gordette Leutz, executive director of the Baraga County Community Foundation, said the presentation was the result of a student survey the BCCF's Youth Advisory Committee conducted to assess the needs of the community.
"One of the primary problems was bullying," she said. "The power of the written word, the power of the spoken word, changes lives. It is one of the only things that ever has. With that in mind we have researched speakers and found that Gabrielle and her sidekick there have proven highly effective in their speaking. We're pretty proud and pleased with the work that our youth group has done."
Following the assembly, seventh-grade student Brynn Harrier said she learned that bullying is more than a slam in the locker or a punch.
"The words are the worst thing," she said from the front row of the gymnasium bleachers. "Bruises go away. They don't hurt forever, but words, they always stay."
In addition to the profile on Animal Planet, Ford's story has gained national attention from the "Today Show" and "Cosmopolitan" magazine.