The suicide of 11-year-old Ty Smalley three years ago shined a spotlight on the bullying he had endured for years at his school in a small Oklahoma town. A father’s grief led Kurt Smalley to begin a personal crusade to end bullying by taking a leadership role in the Stand for the Silent initiative that sprang from his son’s death.
School was a nightmare for Ty, who was small and looked younger than his age. Kids tossed food at him, and he was regularly jammed into lockers and garbage cans. At the time, most school administrators looked the other way or brushed off these incidents as “boys being boys.” At home, Ty was sullen and withdrawn, telling his parents there was nothing wrong.
One day, Ty was suspended from school after being provoked into a fight and sent home early. That afternoon, he placed a .22-caliber gun to his head and killed himself.
Taking a Stand Against Bullying
Local high school students participating in the Oklahoma State Upward Bound program responded to Ty’s story by setting a goal to end bullying in their schools and starting the Stand for the Silent initiative. Word about the movement spread and just three months later a silent vigil took place at the Oklahoma State Capitol and simultaneously in 20 other states and six countries around the globe.
Kirk threw himself into the movement to cope with his grief over Ty’s death. By the end of summer, he assumed leadership of the program and began to take Ty’s story to any school, community group, or religious gathering that wanted to hear it.
“Bullying is the same in the city as it is in country towns, and it’s the same among the big kids as it is with the little kids,” said Kirk. “The message resonates no matter where I go.”
In just three years, he has spoken to nearly 700,000 students, parents, and teachers in the US and abroad. Kirk tells how bullying has impacted his family’s life while urging children to cultivate a culture of kindness toward each other based on recognizing and celebrating the worth of every individual. He asks everyone attending his presentations to make the following pledge, entitled “I Am Somebody”:
“From this day forward, I promise to respect those around me as well as respect myself. I am somebody, and I can make a difference. I can make another feel loved. I can be the helping hand that leads another back to a path of hope and aspiration. I will not stand silent as others try to spread hatred through my community. Instead, I pledge to lift up these victims and show them that their life matters. I will be the change because I am somebody.”
Giving Up Everything for the Cause
Kirk has given up almost everything to spread the Stand for the Silent message, including his job as a foreman for a union sheet-metal company.
He receives speaking requests daily and he has engagements booked into the summer of 2014. His wife Laura works full time managing his itinerary and the e-mails that come in from around the world. Their daughter, Jerri Dawn, also assists with the scheduling.
“It’s very hard on us, but it’s what I do now,” said Kirk. “Laura and I prayed over it, and we decided that Stand for the Silent was our mission, and we would let God take care of the rest.”
Kirk and Laura ask schools and organizations to cover his travel and lodging costs, but he will still visit if they can’t. He and Laura never turn down a request, which means he’s on the road five or six days a week. As a result, they have burned through their savings and are now using their retirement money to fund their work.
“Knowing that we are saving lives is gratifying,” said Kirk. “We get messages by the thousands from children and young adults who want to get involved and from kids who hear us and realize that taking their own life isn’t the answer.
“The most important thing parents can do is to be completely aware of what’s going on in their child’s life,” Kirk said. “Don’t take ‘OK’ for an answer. You have to ask your child hard questions and be prepared to fight with his or her school in making sure that their safety is looked after.”
About HOPE Week
Now in its fifth year, the New York Yankees HOPE Week recognizes individuals and organizations whose acts of goodwill provide hope and encouragement to the community. Honorees are visited in their communities by Yankee players and staff, and attend the night's game as guests of the team.
The Corporation for National and Community Service partners with the New York Yankees to present each HOPE Week honoree with the President's Volunteer Service Award. The Yankees and CNCS hope the honorees' stories send the message that everyone can serve to make their community a better place.