Laura and Kirk Smalley lost their 11-year-old son, Ty, to suicide on May 13, 2010, after he was suspended from school for fighting back against a bully who had been taunting him for years.
Only a day later the Oklahoma couple were contacted by film director Lee Hirsch and agreed to be featured in his groundbreaking 2011 documentary, "Bully," which follows the lives of five students who face bullying on a daily basis in school.
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If you goKirk Smalley of Stand for the Silent; 1 p.m. Saturday, July 7, Cutting Hall Performing Arts Center, 150 E. Wood St., Palatine. Free.
If you need help or are struggling with depression
Contact the youth crisis helpline, 121Help.me, at (855) 201-2121 or visit www.121help.me for confidential help available 24/7.
On Father's Day a few weeks later, Kirk Smalley made a promise to stop bullying around the world, and he and his wife have given up their jobs and life savings to try to do just that.
"I don't break promises to my kid," Smalley said.
In the two years since Ty's death, Kirk and Laura have visited almost 500 schools and talked to more than 600,000 people around the world. They've been to the White House to meet with President Barack Obama and worked with Lady Gaga's Born This Way Foundation.
On Saturday morning, Kirk will speak to representatives from more than 35 park districts in the Chicago area, and at 1 p.m. Saturday he will give a different presentation to the public at large.
Cathi Fabjance, youth program supervisor for the Rolling Meadows Park District, arranged for the visit.
"It's not just a problem in schools," she said. "We have the kids after school and in the summer and the bullying continues here. If we drop the issue and we ignore it over the summer, then we're doing a disservice to our youth."
Many camp counselors are teenagers, who don't have the same training as teachers to look for signs of bullying or dealing with often delicate relations between kids, she said.
Both talks will be held at Cutting Hall Performing Arts Center, 150 E. Wood St., Palatine. The theater holds about 500 people, and while the 1 p.m. event is free Fabjance said space will fill quickly.
Kirk and Laura Smalley also run Stand for the Silent, a nonprofit started by college students from Oklahoma who heard Ty's story. Stand for the Silent now has more than 220 chapters, including one in Illinois that's based in the Northwest suburbs.
"We're just trying to keep this from happening to another child and another family," Kirk Smalley said, adding that's why they bring difficult topics like bullying and youth suicide into the open. "We could just hide from it. But we've got to talk about it. That's the only way to make it stop."
In his presentation, Smalley tells Ty's story of being bullied, relives the day Laura found him dead in their bedroom and shares stories of similar children with empty chairs and photos at the front of the room.
They also hand out wristbands that read "I am somebody" and ask people to take the anti-bullying pledge on their website.
"We try to light a little fire in each community we go to and hopefully that fire spreads and grows," Smalley said.
Laura Smalley travels with her husband and helps him set up for his presentations but leaves the room during each speech because it's too difficult for her to relive Ty's story. She has only given two interviews to local news outlets since her son's death.
Although Kirk talks about Ty every day, he said it never gets easier.
"I relive that day three or four times every single day and that doesn't let it heal or even scab over," Smalley said. "It keeps it fresh, but I have to tell people. People have to know what's going on in our hallways and our schools."
All presentations they make are free, and Kirk does not take money for speaking, though some groups help with the couple's travel expenses.
Bullying is increasingly taking place less in the hallways and more online through Facebook and blogs, as Sandy and Mariah Reeves of Hanover Park knows all too well.
Sandy Reeves started the Illinois chapter of Stand for the Silent, after her 13-year-old daughter, Mariah, was hospitalized in February for depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts after being cyberbullied by several classmates.
Mariah is a quiet teenager who enjoys drawing and will be an eighth-grader in the fall. She was the subject of several Daily Herald stories and was named Humanitarian of the Year by Hanover Park for her bat mitzvah project that donated nearly $2,500 in gift cards and checks to the family of Nathan Saavedra, a 3-year-old Carpentersville boy who needed a kidney transplant. Saavedra received his kidney transplant from a Wheeling man last week and is doing well.
While Mariah was doing her project, however, she was struggling with a group of girls at school who were calling her names and making fun of her on Facebook and other social media sites.
Mariah became depressed and admits she started cutting herself as a coping mechanism.
Her parents noticed she was unusually short-tempered and once they found out about the cutting and bullying, they moved quickly to get Mariah help.
"It was heartbreaking," Sandy said of her daughter's struggles.
After being hospitalized for six days in February, Mariah is now doing well in therapy and on medication.
"I've learned how to not let it get to you," she said.
The whole experience has taught her to open up more to her parents and not keep her feelings inside, which is advice she gives to other kids who are being bullied.
"I didn't feel like I could come to them. I didn't want to admit it," Mariah said. "It's a taboo subject. No one wants to talk about it, but it won't get better unless kids speak up and say something."
Sandy said they worked with Mariah's school and tried to reach out to other school districts in the area, adding some have been more supportive than others. Stand for the Silent has arranged for Kirk Smalley to return to the suburbs next April to speak at Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211. Mariah and Sandy heard him speak last year.
"He reaches out to you emotionally," Mariah said. "His story inspires you to be the change and make a difference."
Mariah is trying to be the difference for other kids who are being bullied by posting inspirational quotes online and being open about her recovery.
"I don't want someone to go through the same thing I did, and I don't want to sit back when I know people are hurting," Mariah said.
Smalley said awareness and communication are the keys to reducing bullying.
All kids need to understand about bullying, even when they aren't the victims, said fellow Stand for the Silent volunteer Julie Gulo, of Schaumburg.
"Most kids are in the middle; they're the bystanders," said Gulo, who has 14-year-old twins. "There's a whole group of kids who need to be empowered to help the kids getting bullied. It's the kids in the middle that are going to make a difference."
Smalley gets messages from kids all over the country who say they have decided not to hurt themselves or even to stop bullying others because of his efforts. But there's still so much more to do.
He advocates for stronger laws against bullying and laws that hold parents accountable for their children's actions.
Kirk is booked with speaking engagements through at least April 2013 and more requests come in every day.
"Life ain't cheap. I'd give my life and everything I have to put my boy back in his mama's arms for just five minutes," Smalley said. "We have to find a way to teach these kids that you don't have to like each other, you don't have to hang out with each other, but you don't have to abuse each other, either."