'So many kids are afraid to tell for fear it will get worse. I always tell them it won’t get better if they don’t ask for help.'
When Morgan Guess was 8 years old, she began to be bullied mercilessly by another third grade girl.
Mary — what Morgan calls the girl to protect her identity — was new in school, but immediately started tormenting her. She'd pinch Morgan's neck, pull her hair, she'd even lead her around everywhere. It was like Mary had claimed Morgan as her personal pet.
And despite the obvious distress the situation was causing her, Morgan didn't tell anyone about her tormentor.
Morgan Guess. Photo courtesy of Susan Guess.
"I didn't tell anyone because I thought it would get worse," admits Morgan in an email.
However, faltering academic performance and a string of panic attacks and stomach spasms put her mom, Susan, on high alert.
"She was afraid and so was I," shares Susan. "Morgan had never experienced violence and she didn't know what to do with it."
Susan called the school, and together they came up with a plan that mainly consisted of keeping the two girls apart. Needless to say, it wasn't full-proof.
The school never addressed the issue outright, and as such, the plan just ended up isolating Morgan, and Mary still found ways to get to her. This sent Morgan down a depressive spiral for which she was prescribed antidepressants, all before reaching age 10.
When Morgan's doctor suggested she leave school, Morgan knew she had to come at the issue from a different direction.
Morgan wearing a T-Shirt from the Guess Anti-Bullying Foundation. Photo courtesy of Susan Guess.
"My parents told me pretty early on that bad things are going to happen and I could choose to ignore them, I could blame others, or I could choose to do something about it," writes Morgan.
So, together with her mom, Morgan decided to find a way to change how bullying is addressed in schools.
They did this by focusing on the overarching problem rather than a specific bully or school system, and that started with getting kids to open up about their bullying experiences. To get the ball rolling, they brought a few speakers to their town who are well-versed on the subject, including Jodee Blanco, author of "Please Stop Laughing at Us," and Lee Hirsch, director of the documentary "Bully."
Slowly but surely, kids began to feel comfortable sharing their stories. And the response lit a fire under mom and daughter.
Morgan Guess. Photo courtesy of Susan Guess.
"We saw kids stand up and talk about cutting, about not being heard, not being believed, and we knew we had to do more," writes Susan. "Morgan wasn't alone and these kids were waiting for someone to speak up, to stand up for them."
While Mary transferred to another school after third grade thereby ending Morgan's personal bullying crisis, she was now committed to protecting as many kids as possible from a similar experience.
Morgan and her mom knew the issue was much bigger than their small town of Paducah, Kentucky. That's why they began petitioning their governor to make a change.
Over the next three years, they worked on getting the state to appoint a statewide task force to study the effects of bullying and share best practices for coping with it. At the end of it, both Morgan and Susan served as members on it. Morgan was by far the youngest at just 11 years old.
Eventually the task force introduced the official Kentucky anti-bullying bill to the House of Representatives, and asked Morgan to give her personal testimony as support for it. The bill clearly defines bullying as any unwanted verbal, physical, or social behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance and is repeated or has the potential to be related. This makes it harder for bullying to go undetected. It passed the house with an overwhelming 39 votes to 1.
Morgan speaking on behalf of anti-bullying at a Commonwealth of Kentucky press conference. Photo courtesy of Susan Guess.
It was a pivotal experience for Morgan.
"I think she will run for office one day, and I think she will propose additional legislation," says Susan.
Until then, however, she's doing what she can in her hometown.
On the local front, mom and daughter have been spearheading a number of bold anti-bullying initiatives.
Every August, they run a Kindness Color Walk to remind the community the importance of being kind at the start of the school year.
Two participants in the Kindness Color Walk. Photo courtesy of Susan Guess.
In 2016, they got their community to write 12,000 letters of encouragement to kids in school. They also hosted a #bekindpaducah mural tagging event, which allowed people all over the world to write positive messages and tag anyone who might need them.
And today, Morgan's working on opening a mental health drop-in center for kids who need counseling.
It's no surprise, considering all of the above, that Morgan was named one of ten Hasbro Community Action Heroes, part of the company's BE FEARLESS BE KIND initiative to empower kids to have the empathy, compassion and courage to stand up for others and be inclusive throughout their lives. The award recognizes young people who are doing just that, and making a difference in their communities.
Morgan (center) with Hasbro Community Action Heroes Josh Kaplan (Left), and Zachary Rice (Right) in New York City. Photo courtesy of Hasbro.
Earlier this year, Morgan joined the nine other Hasbro Community Action Heroes in New York City where they developed a pledge to inspire others to “be fearless and kind.” Youth, parents and caring adults can now take that pledge and learn about ways to put their empathy into action as part of the YSA’s Kindness Rising campaign.
And Morgan's work is far from finished.
When she first started this, Kentucky led the nation in teen suicide attempts. She hopes their efforts have helped lower that number, but more specifically, she hopes they've helped give kids the courage to speak out.
Morgan at the #bekindpaducah mural event. Photo courtesy of Susan Guess.
"So many kids are afraid to tell for fear it will get worse," says Morgan, "I always tell them it won’t get better if they don’t ask for help."
No one knows that better than Morgan herself.
"We have to work together to make schools kinder places, but we also have to know our rights and we need to insist on safe and inclusive schools and communities," she explains.
No doubt Morgan will continue to advocate against bullying as she comes into adulthood, and her mother couldn't be prouder.
"We often talk about how when we push through our fears, there is something beautiful on the other side. My hope is that she will take risks and dig deep to find the courage, always, to stand up for someone in need"
Learn more about the Be Fearless Be Kind pledge here: