When Ottawa's Maria Hawkins, founder and facilitator of motivational music program Stop the Bullying, notes that “children are going through pressures and strains that we can’t appreciate,” she’s acknowledging a troubling reality. Kids are experiencing a form of bullying that seems to be increasing in intensity, due in part to bullies escalating their actions, sometimes under the cover of anonymity, online.
It’s a different reality to what many of today’s parents, who didn’t have childhoods that partly took place on the Internet, experienced when they were kids. But Hawkins, who has spent 25 years presenting in Canadian schools, has seen these changes firsthand.
Known affectionately as “The Blues Lady,” she has created and presented a variety of presentations over the years that centre on music as a motivational tool. She’s run specialized arts programs such as Blues 4 Kids, a school-based program with interactive workshops in music, drama, dance, writing and visual arts; and Sing Thing, a program that encourages self-expression and self-confidence through music for people with physical and developmental disabilities.
Six years ago, her focus changed. Seeing the increase in bullying and the ways in which it affected the kids she presented to, Hawkins created the touring program Stop the Bullying. The one-hour presentation comprises music, skits, discussion and interactive role play that encourages children to recognize their self-worth. Even if bullying is affecting their self-esteem now, Hawkins advocates that kids are capable of accessing the parts of themselves that can envision and attain fulfilling lives during and beyond their school years.
“One of the things I ask the kids is ‘Who here wants a great life?’ and of course the majority of the hands go up,” Hawkins tells Samaritanmag. “We talk about what their role is in getting successful — coming to school and doing their homework — and working with the partnership of teachers and parents to ensure that they have a safe environment.
“That’s when I start talking about bullying,” she continues. “I don’t bring up the subject of bullying for at least 10 minutes into my presentation. I need them to be comfortable enough with me to be able to have that dialogue.”
Hawkins’ program also recognizes that bullying can reach beyond the playground and into various communities.
She’s created a version of Stop the Bullying for adults with physical and developmental disabilities — a group that is particularly vulnerable to mistreatment and is at an increased risk of not having avenues to report or address it. She’s also received support from the Public Service Alliance of Canada to visit Armed Forces bases in Trenton and Petawawa, Ontario to address the unique issues that children in military families face.
“I grew up on CFB [Canadian Forces Base] Borden from age five to 15 and having a military background means you deal with different things than the average kid in the suburbs does,” says Hawkins. “One of those things is the training that Armed Forces personnel receive prepares them to participate in acts of war, but there can be a backlash when they return to civilian life after they’ve had to participate in those things.”
Hawkins’ program addresses the effect that the experiences of returning soldiers have on their family life, particularly their children.
“This variation of Stop the Bullying was also intended to be a family-and-community uniting presentation, because of the parents returning from Afghanistan and places of war and being different than when they left,” explains Hawkins. “In one of my first visits to Petawawa, I met an eight-year-old girl who was like a firefly, enjoying life and having fun. She was such a ball of fire. When I returned to the base for my second visit, her dad had returned disabled. When I saw her in the room, I immediately went, ‘Hi, how is my firefly!’ She just looked at me and shook her head.
“As I was able to slowly get the children to participate, I took that time to talk to the parents as well about spending time with their children, remembering that they’re now home and they’re a parental unit,” she continues, “that they have responsibilities and they can’t allow themselves to 100 percent fall into that cloud of pain and regret over actions that they’ve had to take as members of the Armed Forces in war zones, because that’s hard on the human psyche.”
Hawkins was able to partially get through to the little girl she dubbed “firefly,” but she recognizes that this too is part of the pressures and strains that children go through that adults sometimes can’t appreciate.
“We as a country need to step forward and do something major to make success happen for these kids,” asserts Hawkins. “The military is very focused on veterans right now because it’s coming up to Remembrance Day, but we also need to remember that those veterans have children and those children need extra psychiatric services and support, and yet even the vets themselves are on long waiting lists for these services. We can’t let either of these situations continue.”
It’s this passion to acknowledge and address the issues that children go through in all forms that keeps Hawkins motivated, even through the financial difficulties that her program has experienced. She takes on the extra workload of independently fundraising in order to mitigate the costs on schools who request her program. She has sometimes presented for free if schools are unable to find the budget to bring her in. But although her passion pushes her to do free shows, it’s not financially feasible and she is currently seeking a sponsor to help her support the Stop the Bullying programs.
“The tremendous amount of joy that I get from doing the program is very selfish,” Hawkins jokes. “It pushes me forward to keep doing what I do despite obstacles because it’s the calling that I have for my life. I get so much out of it in feeling good about myself. And I want to encourage kids and motivate them to seek the best in themselves.”Sneakers