Don't mess with Grandma. That was the message that was sent loud and clear by Karen Klein, the 68-year-old school bus monitor who was brutally bullied by a nasty pack of teenagers last June as they made their morning bus trip to school.
As you may recall, one of the kids captured the ugly incident on a cell phone, which went viral, inspiring an outpouring of national empathy. More than 32,000 incensed people donated three-quarters of a million dollars to Klein -- a widow and grandmother of eight -- as both a show of support and a cushion to enjoy her senior years.
That's when Klein, once again, showed the stuff she is made of: Rather than merely offer her thanks and spend the money on herself, she decided to take on bullies everywhere by using $100,000 of the money to seed the Karen Klein Foundation, an anti-bullying initiative that will introduce educational content about bullying to schools across the nation.
"You have all inspired me by your acts of love," Klein said in a public statement, "but now it is time for me to give back and to turn your single act of kindness into my own personal movement to stop bullying in America. Together, we will change the world."
Among the Foundation's forward-thinking goals:
- To create educational curriculum that will teach about bullying and what each of us can do to stop it;
- to support organizations that are bringing awareness to the anti-bullying movement;
- and to provide funds for anti-bullying counseling in schools across the country and around the world.
But that's not all. Having worked with children, Klein knew that a powerful way to send a message to kids was through music. So she created the No Bully Tour, a concert campaign from New York City to Myrtle Beach, S.C. featuring such acts as Grammy-nominated pop musician Beau Badrick, gospel rapper Testimony, and a pack of budding new stars. The tour has even created a CD project called "Bullying Behavior in America: Words Do Hurt."
It was through the tour that we met four remarkable teenagers from New York City: Noni Storm Chinn, Claire Jones, Sammi Sanchez, and Taylor Nirvana Jones -- aka Love Jones Girlz. The four high-schoolers have been on a musical tear since winning the 2010 Faces in the Crowd showcase in New York, and their debut album, "Addicted to Lip Gloss" is due in early 2013.
But they had a more compelling reason to join the tour than simply dreams of pop stardom: Not unlike Karen Klein herself, all of them had been bullied.
NONI: "In fourth grade, a new girl sat next to me and asked me why my skin was so light and hers was so dark? I told her it was because my dad was lighter than my mom. She yelled, 'So you're a zebra!' I asked her to stop calling me that, but she wouldn't -- then she got everyone to join in with her. All of these people who I thought were my friends were suddenly making fun of me. Finally, one girl who was a bystander told the teacher about it, and the bullies got in trouble. It goes to show you that anyone can be a bully and anyone can stop a bully."
CLAIRE: "It was lunchtime and I was on my way to meet my friends. Suddenly, a girl walks over to me and yells in my face, 'Do you have problem?' I made no eye contact, but she kept mocking me, saying, "Can you speak? You wanna use your words?!" I tried to walk away, but she pushed me, and then wrapped her hands around my neck -- squeezing hard and choking me. I eventually got away. Although there are no scars on my body, there are scars on my heart."
SAMMI: "All throughout my school life I have been bullied. I have been pushed down the stairs at school, called ugly, a bitch, hairy, and so many other horrible words. There was even a time when someone tripped me on the playground and I ended up going to the hospital with a cracked forehead. It's crazy how someone can treat you like that; but in the end, I feel like it made me a stronger person. Sure, words are always going to hurt, but I've learned to get back up and move on."
TAYLOR: "When I was in elementary school, this one girl bullied me for almost two years straight. I remember one incident in particular: I was on the playground hanging out with my friends when she came up to me and said, 'Tomorrow I'm going to bring my dad's BB-gun to school and shoot you.' I was too afraid to tell anyone at school. My 'friends' clearly heard her but, they were scared, too. When I got home I told my parents, and then cried all night and stayed home from school for the rest of the week. My mom had to meet with the teacher, the principal and the girl's parents to get her to stop. When I think about it, I can still feel those emotions like it was yesterday. No one should ever have to be afraid to be themselves, or fear that someone might hurt them. When I heard that we were going to be on the No-Bullying Tour, I thought it was the perfect opportunity not only to share my story, but to encourage others to speak up if they are victims or witnesses of bullying. If you see any kind of bullying, say something to an authority figure or someone you trust. It is so important -- someone's life could be at stake."
It takes a lot of character to turn a personal experience with bullying into something positive. That's why I admire Love Jones Girlz. And it takes a lot of moxie to climb back onto your feet after being bullied, and fight back -- the good way. That's why I admire Karen Klein.
Remember, all of us are affected by the crisis of bullying. I hope you'll find a way to fight back, too.
P.S. By the way, did I mention that Love Jones Girlz are also fantastic performers? Take a look at the slide show below, which includes a clip from their recent appearance at Arthur Ashe Kids Day at the 2012 U.S. Open. You go, girls!
Follow Marlo Thomas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MarloThomas