Bee Friendly: How a Gateway member’s school program is tackling bullying for good.

You're amazing. You're worthy. Your life is important. You can do it.

The last place you might expect to hear these words is in a public school. But here in Texas, a single mom, her five kids, and a bee are changing the way students feel about themselves and each other.

One out of three kids in the United States endures some type of bullying, and children with special needs are 35% more likely to be targeted by bullies. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death in 10- to 14-year-olds.* Add in the statistics about cyber bullying and the situation looks pretty dire.

Eight years ago, when Kristi Kennedy was sitting on her couch having her quiet time, she had no idea she would one day tackle this issue. She was about to go on the road with her recently published book about her son’s recovery from autism when God suddenly gave her an idea. After 30 minutes of writing, she emerged with the general foundation for the Bee Friendly Boot Camp, which she thought would be a character- and leadership-based program to help students with special needs enter a mainstream school environment.

Kristi and her kids lived in Michigan at the time, and she went to the Michigan House of Representatives and Senate to seek support to pilot the program. The House chairman came back and asked if the program would help diminish bullying. When she told him it was a beneficial result of the program, he told her it should be the main focus. He explained how they get calls every day from constituents about bullying. This resonated deeply with Kristi. She had endured many years of pain watching her autistic son get severely bullied. “It’s extremely difficult parenting a special needs child in and of itself, let alone one who is being bullied,” Kristi says. “It affected our whole family.” So she shifted the primary focus of the program to be about conquering bullying, and the Bee Friendly Boot Camp was born.

The heart of the Bee Friendly Boot Camp is to help children recognize their value and potential in the world through character and leadership development. They do this by creating a culture of belonging, kindness, and character through a fun, interactive, concert-like schoolwide assembly, including a comedian, a So You Think You Can Dance contestant, a Guinness World Record holder, a former NFL player, Kristi, and all five of her kids, along with a surprise live visit from the Bee Friendly mascot, BeeBuzz (a giant bee). This is followed by year-round digital curriculum, Bee Affirmed cards that instill words of encouragement, a Bee Buddies program for special needs students, and so much more. Through an atmosphere of positivity, kindness, and belonging, bullying is practically banished.

In the midst of developing this life-changing program, Kristi and her kids moved to Texas and started attending and volunteering with Gateway, all while continuing to research the long-term effects of the program. “If we were going to invest time and money into this program, we wanted to make sure there were long-lasting, measurable outcomes,” Kristi says. “As a single parent to five homeschooled kids, I value teachers’ limited time and wanted to make sure our program produced results.” Kristi contacted educational professionals, special education professionals, social workers, psychiatrists, and psychologists to help research and develop every piece of the Bee Friendly Boot Camp year-round program.

Kristi also sought out professionals within Gateway’s Tech Arts and Media & Communications Departments for insight into how to create engaging and effective videos for kids and how to integrate the lighting, video, and audio atmosphere for the school assemblies. All of Kristi’s kids are involved in the program, helping out as much as they can in between work and school. “They’ve all been invested in it and see its value. They also make up the Bee Band!” Kristi says. “There wouldn’t be a program without each one of them.”

This past year, the Bee Friendly Boot Camp officially launched at two local elementary schools. The first part of the program is a school assembly, and when the Bee Friendly Boot Camp tech team goes into the school, the place is transformed. It has all the elements of a half-time show: crazy lighting, a mascot, confetti, dancing, a band, and a large crowd. The elementary school gymnasiums are hardly recognizable, and every kid is totally captivated. For a full 45 minutes, the production teaches about value and belonging, using live and video elements, music and dancing, sports metaphors, comedy, amazing feats, and fun. After the assembly, teachers have ongoing access to the digital curriculum, which instills these concepts throughout the year.

The incredible and exciting stories about the impact of this program keep coming in. After one of their recent assemblies, the Bee Friendly team noticed a couple of girls in tears. Wondering what was happening, some coaches from the school talked to them. “We were told that several of the girls didn’t have much parental involvement in their lives, and one had just lost her dad,” Kristi says. “The girls had never heard anyone tell them they were valued and loved and that their life had purpose. It was pretty powerful.” One dad said he didn’t know how to tell his daughters how he felt about them, but now he uses the Bee Affirmed cards to read them affirming words.

The BeeBuzz mascot can be seen in sponsoring business partners throughout the community. One little girl said she sleeps with the “You Beelong” Bee Affirmed card under her pillow each night, because it helps her get up each day. Principals and teachers are amazed at the changes within their classrooms. Not only has bullying started to subside but these kids are also learning about character, kindness, and hope. “There were so many times over the years that we felt like quitting,” Kristi says. “But we’re so grateful we didn’t because it’s really impacting lives.”

Bee Friendly Boot Camp’s goal is to launch in 25 more schools within the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex and in key cities across the nation in the next year and to reach 100,000 students in the next two years. They’ve already had several states and even countries like India, England, Canada, and Australia express interest in hosting the Bee Friendly Boot Camp at their schools. Kristi says, “Our vision is to create a sense of belonging for every person on the planet.”

 

*Statistics are taken from beefriendlybootcamp.com. October is National Bullying Prevention Month! If you’d like to volunteer with the Bee Friendly Boot Camp team or if you’d like to give to their Kickstarter campaign, visit beefriendlybootcamp.com. To get a free digital surprise, text KIND to 42828.