Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bisons Against Bullying a big hit

Student-athletes help youngsters cope with taunts and abuse

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Football players R.J. Skinner and Tyler Fabbri have always been big -- big for their age, and then just plain big.

That's great when you are a football player. When you are a young kid, not so much.

Skinner and Fabbri, members of the University of Manitoba Bisons football team, are both over 6-feet and close to 300 pounds. And they have both been victims of bullying. This winter they and other U of M athletes are leading the charge in the Bisons Against Bullying Program, sharing their stories and ideas with elementary school children across Winnipeg.

"I was always a big kid and I got made fun of a lot for being a bigger kid," Skinner, a defensive lineman, told a group of students during a recent presentation at Ecole Riverview School.

"But, being big got me into football. Now being big has got me into university (on scholarship) and playing on the Bisons football team. So the joke is on (the bullies) now," Skinner said.

The group of Bisons at Ecole Riverview included Fabbri and women's soccer players Sarah Haiko and Mariel Garcia.

Fabbri said both he and Skinner believe the best way to combat bullying is to bring awareness to young students and strategies to help deal with it.

"I've been picked on my entire life and it still happens. I wear glasses and I'm a big guy. I've actually gone through some depression," Fabbri said. "If I can tell my story and help out even one kid, then you've done something worthwhile. It makes a difference, it truly does, if you can talk about it or get it out there."

Skinner said being part of the Bisons Against Bullying program is a way for the athletes to help younger students choose not to bully and to help those who are being bullied.

"We're adults, but we're not like grown-ups because we're still in school like they are, so we hope they can look up to us and relate to us a bit easier," Skinner said.

The Ecole Riverview students had some creative ideas on how to stop bullying, clearly enjoyed by the Bisons, including, "throw $5 on the ground and when the bully picks it up, run away" and "distract them (bullies) by singing and dancing."

Skinner told the students that friends and family helped him get through his experiences of being bullied.

"I would always go home and tell my parents what happened," Skinner said. "They told me, and this was good advice, to hang out with people who accepted me for who I am."

Near the end of the 40-minute presentation, students had the chance to win Bisons tuques or key chains by correctly answering questions about what they had learned.

Ben Coppinger, a Grade 6 student, said the presentation gave kids a lot to think about.

"It just made you realize that there's so many ways that you can be bullied or that you might see bullying happen and that there is something you can do," said Coppinger, 11, who plays hockey and soccer. "They're such big, strong guys and they got through it."

"They had really good stories," said Claudia McWilliams, a 10-year-old Grade 5 student.

Haiko left the students with some parting thoughts.

"Think twice about how you are making that individual feel. Each one of you can do something to make someone else's life better," she told the students.

The Bisons are planning at least seven more presentations this winter, including Monday at Victor H.L. Wyatt School and Feb. 8 at Ste. Anne Elementary School.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 28, 2012 C7

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