BUSHLAND, Texas (AP) — If the ruse of his grandmother driving him from their home in Hereford to Bushland to see the school for a possible transfer seemed a little sketchy to 11-year-old Marcus Escobedo, it sure seemed fishy when he was directed to take a hard right down a hallway to the junior high cafeteria.
"I didn't expect this to be that great a place," he said, "but it is."
The Amarillo Globe-News reports waiting for him were the loud marching strains from 20 members of the Bushland High School band, as well as the welcoming cheers from about 250 students from Bushland Middle School, Westover Park Junior High in Amarillo, and seven students and one sponsor from Lake Worth High School, 352 miles away on Fort Worth's northwestern edge.
"This is pretty cool," said Marcus, whose face wore a dazed look for most of the recent 30-minute surprise ceremony that was for him and only him.
Marcus was the 13th honoree — if you will — of the national Be A Friend project, an anti-bullying campaign that got its beginnings in New York from the See The Wish educational theater company. One of its musicals, "It's Easy," was on bullying. The cast of the show wanted to continue the focus on the musical and take it from the stage to real life.
"This has just continued to grow and grow," said Jennifer Jo Young of Cold Spring, New York, co-founder and co-president of the Be A Friend project. "It's doing what we hoped it would do."
The idea is to learn of a bullying victim, vet their story, and then through participating school organizations across the country, send that student handwritten letters of encouragement. They don't mediate any crisis. They don't talk to school officials. They just flood a young boy or girl with letters of encouragement.
"You get hundreds and hundreds of letters of support from their peers. It's to let them know they're not alone and to stay strong," Young said. "On the flip side, someone who's writing them is stepping into their shoes and to take the time to practice empathy. Empathy does not come naturally for everyone."
Michelle Lancaster, a Bushland High School family and consumer science teacher, is also sponsor of the service club, FCCLA (Family Care and Community Leaders of America). A few years ago, her parents, living in New Jersey, heard about the project, and told her daughter. She in turn asked club members if they wanted to participate.
Two years ago, her students were among hundreds across the country who wrote support letters to Mia Munoz, then 12, who was at Austin Middle School. About three months ago, KFDA-TV aired a piece on Marcus, who was dealing with threats in Hereford.
Lancaster sent the information on to Young, who agreed to put their national campaign in motion for Marcus. In the meantime, Lancaster enlisted the assistance of Bushland's junior high, Westover , and her colleague Juli Thorpe, the FCCLA sponsor in Lake Worth.
Let the letter writing begin. Almost all correspondence goes first to Young, who removes any last names, any references to social media. They're not creating pen pals. She also looks for any letters in the rare instance they might blame the victim.
"If we get close to 1,000 letters," Young said, "we might take out five."
Two years ago, like most others, Mia Munoz got her letters delivered to her home. Lancaster thought they could do better than that with a surprise presentation to Marcus. It took some planning and juggling, particularly with a 700-mile roundtrip for the Lake Worth students.
"By helping the wounded and the injured and make them grow," Thorpe said, "it makes our students feel better about who they are. It's about being a true leader. One of our national projects is 'Stop the Violence,' so this marries together. We're glad to come up here and be part of this."
Linda Guerrero said her grandson has had severe ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, since he was 3, and is being tested for autism. Marcus said he's been burned with a lighter, beaten up, and had a knife pulled on him.
"He's looking over his shoulder. Lately, he's been waking up crying," she said.
Because a snowstorm in the northeast delayed arrival of letters, Marcus didn't have all of the record haul at the presentation. There is a record 1,182 letters in all. Munoz was on hand to present Marcus with more than 500 letters that weren't stranded.
She is now 14 and a ninth grader at Caprock High School in Amarillo. Her 500 letters were, and still are, a boost. She hopes it will be for Marcus.
"It gave me a lot of self-confidence," she said. "I've got a jar of letters and just this week, when I was feeling down, I'll read a few again."
Information from: Amarillo Globe-News, http://www.amarillo.com