ST. LOUIS – Brought back to life three times on the operating table, a dog named Marshall lives to help Missouri 4-H’ers teach others about bullying.
October is National Bullying Prevention Month, said University of Missouri Extension 4-H youth development specialist in St. Louis County Amanda Meek. This month, MU Extension employees across the state are training on a new 4-H youth mentoring program about bullying that Meek wants to expand to other areas of the state.
The Marshall Mentor program was inspired by Marshall and his story of resilience and trust. Marshall was one of 60 dogs the Missouri Humane Society rescued in 2010 from an abandoned property in Marshall, Missouri. Near death at the time of his rescue, his front leg was amputated before St. Louis resident Cyndi Willenbrock adopted him.
Willenbrock began writing a new chapter in Marshall’s life through a children’s picture book, “Marshall the Miracle Dog.” She turned the page on a life of neglect and abuse by an animal hoarder. Marshall responded with love and affection, and was willing to trust and love despite his past. Stories emerged of tolerance and acceptance.
“I think that there’s a place in all of us…a place of inadequacy, of feeling different, of maybe looking different, and that awkwardness of growing up that children feel a natural connection to Marshall,” says Willenbrock. She says Marshall knows he has a job to do—“to reassure children and adults that we all matter. We all have a light that wants and needs to shine, and that there is a hero in all of us. Marshall is a reminder to not give up five minutes before the miracle.”
She said Marshall carries his scars on the outside, but bullied youth carry their scars on the inside, often for a lifetime.
Willenbrock was drawn to 4-H to spread the word of Marshall because of its all-inclusive programs for youth and strong adult volunteer program.
“I want to get into the life of every child so they can carry this message into adulthood,” she said. “Kindness is contagious. Courage is contagious.”
The success of her book encouraged her to produce a movie filmed in June in the metro St. Louis area. Some 4-H members and faculty have roles in the film. It tells the story of Finn, a 13-year-old boy who is the target of bullies at his new school. The cast includes actors and actresses from popular television shows such as “Gossip Girl,” “Saturday Night Live” and “NCIS.” Marshall and other dogs in the movie were lavished with love and attention from others, such as former 4-H member Jonne Rodarte. She flew in from Hollywood on behalf of Movie Animals Protected, a group that oversees the humane treatment of animals in film and TV.
The Marshall Mentor program was a pilot project with Girls in the Know, a St. Louis youth program. Through MU Extension’s 4-H yearlong after-school program, it gives older 4-H youth opportunities to use leadership and public speaking skills, Meek said. Younger kids are exposed to positive role models through the program and learn how to deal with bullying.
Middle school student Miriam Sokora, 13, had a bit part in the movie and is a participant in the program. She’s in the group to help young people to appreciate each other’s differences and to help people who were bullied as she was. She reminds them, “You have to keep going. You can never give up.”
Asia Wilson, 15, a St. Louis County 4-H member, is a Marshall Mentor. She helps younger people learn to be empathetic and courageous. She encourages youth to intervene when they see or hear someone being bullied. “Bullying can lead to death and personal changes. It can hurt you mentally, but I think it hurts you physically too,” she says.
Wilson said she was heavyset as a kid and students made fun of her. Friends helped her deal with the ridicule. She knows firsthand the value of students who were willing to stand up for her.
“Having it come from another student makes a child feel better to know that somebody their age or close to their age can relate to them,” Wilson says.
She says youth who meet Marshall the dog learn an awareness of how to deal with bullying. Through his scars, Marshall helps others be ambassadors to heal the hidden scars of bullying victims.