It’s not every day that Spider-Man shows up at your classroom, but that’s exactly what happened Monday at Foothill Elementary School in Pittsburg.
First- and second-graders at the school were treated to a visit from Heart of a Hero founder Ricky Mena, who usually reserves his superhero suit for visiting sick children in hospitals. This time, however, he donned the Marvel costume to teach young students an evergreen lesson: Be kind and appreciate each other’s differences.
The anti-bullying message is hardly novel; it’s one that is drilled into students repeatedly through public service announcements and online campaigns, but it bears repeating, Mena said. Many of the sick children he visits return to school and are teased for their changed appearance — a cruel burden overshadowing what should be a celebratory return to the classroom.
“I wanted to get to the root of the problem,” Mena said. “For a lot of the kids, when they do go back to school, they’re made fun of for having no hair or being in a wheelchair or for looking different. It can be really hard for them…It makes them less excited about school.”
Mena, who left a rap career to devote his time to the nonprofit, talked to the classes about the children he meets, the added obstacles they face and the ways in which students can create welcoming environments.
“It’s basically about giving each other respect and treating each other with kindness,” he said.
Data from the United States Department of Education shows that bullying has been on a decline since 2005, but it continues to be an issue affecting millions of children each year. A nationwide study found that bullying impacts about 20 percent of students – a rate far lower than California’s 33 percent and Contra Costa County’s 35 percent. Although students from all backgrounds and ethnicities report being bullied, LGBT youth, people of color and people with disabilities are the most likely to be targeted.
Mena keeps statistics like those in mind when visiting children at hospitals and, now, at schools. As NBC Bay Area previously reported, it was a dream about performing meaningful work with children in his community that led him to create Heart of a Hero in 2014.
Since then, he’s donned the Spidey suit for more than 7,000 children in various states.The nascent nonprofit is funded mostly through donations, so Mena works odd jobs in between to make ends meet. Paying the bills isn't always easy, he said.
“I do it because I love it,” he said. “Just to see the look on their faces.”
On Monday, he appeared at the Pittsburg elementary school at the request of Principal Nina Crossland. She said the school hasn’t seen a surge in bullying cases, but one recent incident motivated her to reach out to Heart of a Hero. A boy with autism spectrum disorder got into an argument with a group of his fellow students, and the fight briefly turned physical, she said.
“We had a couple students that retaliated against a student with disabilities.” Nina said. “…I just decided that I wanted them to hear from a speaker about bullying, that even if someone is hitting you, you don’t have to hit them back. Everybody’s different, and our student who was hitting them doesn’t know and doesn’t realize how to make friends. So it was really important for them to think about that.”
The Interactive Autism Network, one of the largest research centers studying the disorder, found that 63 percent of children with autism have been bullied in school.
"Children with ASD are already vulnerable,” Paul Law, director of the network, said of the statistic. "To experience teasing, taunts, ostracism or other forms of spite may make a child who was already struggling to cope become completely unable to function.”
Crossland cautioned that physical confrontations between students are rare at the school. She said the ultimate goal of Mena’s visit was to continue making the school an inclusive environment for all who attend.
“We want them to feel safe,” Crossland said. “We want them to be protected. Any uplifting message they can get is a bonus.”
While visiting, Mena also spoke to classes of third graders — a speaking engagement for which he took off the Spidey suit. He’s found that older students typically respond better to when he talks to them person-to-person as opposed to superhero-to-student. He’ll be returning to the school on Friday to speak with fourth and fifth grade classes.
“I hope I can keep doing this forever,” he said. “It gives me joy to know that I’m hopefully making a difference with what I’m doing. That’s the best part of it for me.”