by Kirk Smalley
Ty Smalley was raised in the town of Perkins, just 15 minutes from the campus of Oklahoma State University, in the heart of Payne County. Perkins had always been a small town of modest, hardworking people. Unless you lived in Oklahoma, you probably never had reason to hear of it. But that changed three years ago, after something terrible happened.
For Ty, who was small and looked a couple of years younger than his 11 years, school was a waking nightmare. By sixth grade, he had already been the subject of unmerciful bullying for a number of years. Kids tossed food at him, and he was regularly jammed into lockers and garbage cans. Deflecting insults, coping with intimidation and suffering violence were part of the daily incidents as “boys being boys.”
Throughout it all, Ty maintained his good nature and ever-present smile. Unfortunately, his outward demeanor masked a great deal of hurt.
No one saw coming what seems inevitable now. On May 13, 2010, Ty was provoked into a fight at school and was suspended. Home early from school and left alone because his parents had to work, he took his own life.
That summer, Ty’s story was taken up by local high school students participating in the Oklahoma State University Upward Bound program. Together, they set a goal to end bullying in their respective high schools and began an initiative called “Stand for the Silent.”
Word of the movement spread quickly and just over three months later, a silent vigil was held on the lawn of the Oklahoma State Capitol. Related ceremonies took place simultaneously in 20 other states and six other countries, including Australia, Canada, Ireland, Spain, South Africa and the United Kingdom.
Needing an outlet for their grief, Ty’s parents, Kirk and Laura, threw themselves into the movement. When the summer ended, they assumed leadership of the program and began to take Ty’s story on the road to any school, community group or religious gathering that wanted to hear it.
In just three years, Kirk, with the full support of his family, has spoken to almost 700,000 students, parents and teachers in the U.S. and abroad.
“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,” Kirk said. “The message resonates no matter where I go.”
His typical audience ranges from fourth-graders to high school students, though he has spoken to pre-kindergarten children, prison populations and senior citizens.
At the start of his presentation, five life-size photos of children are placed on easels behind five empty chairs. Each photo is of a child who has taken his or her life as a result of being bullied. Student volunteers read aloud the stories of these children as written by their parents. The children then introduce Kirk, who tells how bullying has impacted his family’s life.
“Kids have a built-in b.s. detector,” Kirk said. “I’m no public speaker. I’m a construction worker. But they realize that I’m someone who cares. I can’t let this happen to another family.”
Kirk also urges children to cultivate a culture of kindness toward each other based on recognizing and celebrating the worth of every individual. He asks everyone in attendance to take a pledge entitled “I Am Somebody.” Together they recite:
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.
“No one is born to hate,” Kirk said. “It’s something that’s learned and something that can change.
“To the bullies who gain an understanding of what they’ve done, I say ‘We love you. But now you have to apologize and change your behavior.’”
The Smalleys have sacrificed almost everything to spread the Stand for the Silent message. Prior to Ty’s suicide, Kirk was a foreman for a union sheet-metal company; however, after a year of mourning and dedicating himself to speaking to children, his job had to let him go.
“It’s very hard on us, but it’s what I do now,” Kirk said. “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.”
Stand for the Silent receives speaking requests daily, and Kirk is booked solid into the summer of 2014. Booking Kirk’s travel, handling the organization’s finances and managing the e-mails that flood in from around the world is Laura’s full-time job. She was previously employed as a member of the kitchen staff at Ty’s school, but never went back. Their daughter, Jerri Dawn, coordinates the scheduling.
Kirk and Laura ask schools and organizations to cover his cost of travel and lodging. If that’s not possible, Kirk will visit anyway, out of pocket. He and Laura never turn down a request. 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,” Kirk said. “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.”
Jerri Dawn arranges her father’s schedule to enable him to speak three or four times in a day, often at various locations in the same city. Then, he will drive or fly to the next city and do it again. Typically, he’s on the road five or six days a week, recounting and reliving any parent’s worst nightmare solely for the benefit of others. At this point, the pain is permanently watermarked in his voice.
“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.
“Kids need to know not to internalize any mistreatment they receive. If they’re upset, they can talk it out. They don’t have to act it out. My boy didn’t know that, and it’s too late for him. But it’s not too late for others.”
In just three years, Stand for the Silent has reached almost 700,000 children and parents through school and community presentations.
The website for Smalley’s organization is Stand for the Silent. Download the Stand for the Silent brochure. Children seeking trained counselors can visit 121 Help Me or call a hotline at (855) 201-2121