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Bullying is no laughing matter at JCC

Fundraiser, program help kids stand up to bullying

Comedian Susie Essman kept a rapid-fire routine, often involving members of the audience, as she and co-headliner Richard Lewis performed for the second annual Laugh It Up Milwaukee benefit Saturday Jan. 19, presented by the Bayshore Community Foundation and hosted at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center in Whitefish Bay.

Comedian Susie Essman kept a rapid-fire routine, often involving members of the audience, as she and co-headliner Richard Lewis performed for the second annual Laugh It Up Milwaukee benefit Saturday Jan. 19, presented by the Bayshore Community Foundation and hosted at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center in Whitefish Bay. Photo By John O'Hara

Jan. 23, 2013

Whitefish Bay - Is there a measure of irony in Susie Essman, whose acid-tongued character Susie Greene terrorizes her husband around the set of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and her "Curb" co-star Richard Lewis performing back to back stand-up sets to help banish bullying?

Maybe. 

Right: Comedian Richard Lewis, who had the second set in the JCC's Laugh It Up Milwaukee event on the 19th.

The duo lit up the Jewish Community Center on Saturday night at its annual Laugh It Up Milwaukee event, the proceeds from which were donated to Children's Hospital of Wisconsin to help fund the expansion of its Act Now! program, which through a combination of online, bullying-themed video games, quizzes and assessments aims to educate kids, get bystanders involved, and curb bullying.

"We're using stand-up comedy to address issues which, for lack of a better phrase, plague our society," says JCC Executive Director Mark Shapiro. "We're all in on ways to impact bullying, in any way we can."

Act Now!

At its core, Act Now! is a fourth- to eighth-grade online anti-bullying curriculum which brings the issue of bullying into the light and shows kids what it looks like and how to help prevent it. According to Children's Hospital Community Health Director Bridget Clementi, one of 10 students is a victim, one of 10 is a bully, and eight of 10 are bystanders.

Act Now! aims to have those bystanders do just that.

"They don't know what to do, and they don't know what to think or who to tell," says Clementi. "We talk about those a lot."

Children's Hospital launched Act Now! in October 2010 to an audience of about 5,000 students. With some help from the state Department of Instruction Act Now! currently reaches an estimated 25,000 students, including kids from the Maple Dale-Indian Hill, Whitefish Bay, Shorewood and Mequon-Thiensville districts. Shapiro says the JCC will be working to incorporate the online courses into its before and after school programs, as well as a "live" variant into its day and overnight camping.

Clementi says, with the infusion of cash from the Laugh It Up event last week, Children's Hospital will expand Act Now! to include training for school staff, teachers and administrators.

Such training, she says, has been shown to reduce bullying three times more than children's training alone.

A video game?

For the younger students in the program, the games are simple activities, like popping bubbles containing text which describes bad behaviors, or virtual kickball.

For the older students, says Children's Hospital Community Health Representative Clay Anton, the game unfolds before their eyes like a digital, 21st century choose your own adventure novel. Students pick a character at the beginning of the game and set out through the digital space of Newbridge Middle School, encountering other students, talking to teachers, taking tests and watching scenes of bullying play out before them.

The students can choose to do the right thing, to put off the bully or befriend the new girl at school, or they can do the wrong thing. They can encourage a bully, or antagonize the new girl.

But each of those choices has consequences which ripple out across the remainder of their play time, causing other controllable characters to become bullies, or friends, and changing the atmosphere of the school for good or for bad.

At the end of the game students get a detailed breakdown of their good - and not so good - decisions, all of which drive toward the main goal.

"We want to empower those bystanders to be 'upstanders,' " says Anton.

A girl and her zebra

Yet, the online lessons, the choices and ramifications of the virtual school, the quizzes, the digital kickball, and Act Now! itself wouldn't exist if it wasn't for one brave little girl, on whose shoulders the program stands.

Kelly Weil found out she had bone cancer at 8 years old in 1990. When her friends found out they backed away, and Kelly felt hurt, different, and left out.

She lost her battle with cancer in 1993, but not before penning the tale of "Zink the Zebra," a zebra with spots instead of stripes who overcomes the derision of her herd to learn the value of difference.

Kelly's work has since been turned into a fully-illustrated children's book, and her father founded the Zink the Zebra Foundation to help promote friends, tolerance and acceptance. Without thematic and financial assistance from the Zink the Zebra Foundation, says Clementi, Act Now! wouldn't have gotten off the ground.

And Zink is back, in 21st century style. At first she's on a poster in the background of the in-game cafeteria. As students progress through the game, Zink interacts directly with them - even in the form of texting their in-game phone - and gradually reveals the story of Kelly and Zink, underscoring the lessons with a poignant grounding in reality.

"When it comes down to it, a lot of what we teach in our program is that differences are good things," says Anton. "We can honor Kelly's legacy by teaching those lessons."

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