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SELMA – Watching the children running about the playground at the first Lights On Afterschool event at Selma’s Boys and Girls Club, you’d never realize they’re dealing with the pressures of bullying in everyday life. But when asked, many of the children in attendance say they have been picked on and teased to the point they’ve called on teachers and parents to intervene.

Boys and Girls Club Unit Director Mark Armenta said he realizes kids in their program are also coping with this issue. So when the national Lights On Afterschool event was announced, he decided to give their night a theme to raise awareness about bullying.

He’s noticed some of the children enrolled in their after-school program becoming withdrawn, their grades dropping and their attitudes changing. He’s heard stories about the students being picked on because of their clothing or their shoes and that they were being bullied online.

“They were affected to where it showed in their personalities,” Armenta said. “They didn’t want to participate in programs and their grades were dropping. We’d have conversations with them and bullying is really big.”

Armenta said he coaches students to walk away from the confrontations and get help.

“If somebody’s picking on you, run away and report it to your parents, your school counselor or principal. Get somebody else involved and don’t just retaliate and become a bully. It’s better to walk away from a situation than cause a situation.”

For this first event, local nonprofits set up informational booths and the Selma Bandits Cheerleaders performed some of their routines. Also, a young rapper that’s visited before made a repeat appearance to sing a rap that encourages kids to not taunt each other just because they’re different from each other.

Madera’s Jessie Hernandez said he writes songs for his 5-year-old daughter, whose stage name is Princess Jessie Jane, to sing. And when he heard about 13-year-old Rosalie Avila committing suicide after being bullied at school and on social media about her braces, they decided to use music to send a message.

“When I saw that, it just broke my heart. For somebody that young to take their life because of other kids putting them down and bullying them, it just shouldn’t be,” Hernandez said. “That inspired me to write this song and push against bullying. A lot of people will start doing bullying and stop after they get attention. But we’re trying to start a movement and change people lives through awareness.”

Before Jessie bopped around the basketball courts singing her rap song along to the music, the Bandits Cheerleaders performed their routines on the park’s lawn. Even these young children say they’ve had to endure taunting from classmates.

Heidi Unruh, 8, is one of the Bandit’s peewee cheerleaders. She shared how another girl at school kept tripping her during recess. She let a teacher know right away and said she didn’t want to trip the girl back in retaliation as that would only get her in trouble.

“It made feel sad. I didn’t want to say anything mean back because then she’d tell on me,” Unruh said. She hopes events like this rally get bullies to stop and reconsider their actions.

“I’d tell them to say ‘sorry’ and the kids being bullied should go talk their teacher.”

Graciela Garcia, 10, a junior cheerleader, said she too has had to deal with taunts, but this was about her appearance.

“At school we were running the track and then all of a sudden a girl yelled out, ‘you’re fat.’ It made me feel insecure about my body and it made me really sad. I think she was going through that so she let her anger out on other people.”

Senior cheerleader Brooklyn Reis, 11, said another girl in their school’s after-school program would call her and a friend names. Even though they let their after-school leader know, the taunts continued.

“She kept doing it when we’d go outside and we’d try to talk to her but it wasn’t really working. She’d say different things and sometimes she’d say sorry but then would go right back to bullying.”

Reis said her teachers have been informed and she hopes in the future, that bullying student changes her behavior.

“Bullies should think about what they’re doing and how they’d feel if the same thing were happening to them.”

Parents in attendance at the event say younger and younger children are dealing with bullying.

Denise Salas, who came with her son, David Garcia, to the event, said it’s her younger daughter who gets picked on sometimes by girls in her class.

“I teach them that if they do [get bullied], they need to tell mom so I can talk to their teachers because bullying’s not allowed. It seems like it’s worse now than it was back then.”

She’s grateful, though, that her son and other kids have the Boys and Girls Club staff to talk with about the problem as well.

“It’s good that at least if he’s not comfortable to tell me, he can go to anyone here and talk with them.”

Armenta said they’ll continue to talking with the kids about how to prevent and deal with bullying to make a dent in the dilemma.

“This is our first year doing something like this, so we’re going to keep pushing for it.”

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