Feb. 22, 2019 – After area physicians diagnosed an 11-year-old with having a stage 4 Wilms kidney tumor, she knew she faced the fight of her life.
Ellie Cunningham, now 14, said her family lived in the hospital for her treatment for approximately a year. Her treatment often required her to miss school, which her classmates resented.
After she returned to school Cunningham found herself facing another fight, one with many of her classmates who bullied her.
“You shouldn’t have to bully people just so that you feel good about yourself. Like you shouldn’t have to make
people feel upset about themselves because of the way they are, the way they look,” she said. “It’s not fair.”
Cunningham said her classmates bullied her due to her cancer-related hair loss. They also taunted her, she said, because she missed school due to her illness.
Then Cunningham met Stanley, a bulldog born with his own special physical challenges, at an outreach the canine did for another girl with cancer.
Debbie Pack, Stanley’s mom, said she could see an immediate connection between the very special girl and the very special dog.
“It was such a powerful moment because you could see that these two related so well together, that they had a connection, they understood each other’s differences and they came together as one,” Pack said.
Stanley related to Cunningham because others have bullied him, Pack said.
Puppies born with Stanley’s challenges including a bilateral cleft lip, a curve in his spine and deformed back legs, often receive euthanasia. Pack met Stanley after a breeder contacted her about his brother Oliver. Pack, a retired preschool teacher, used Oliver to help her classes learn how to treat others with physical differences.
When the children saw Oliver, she said they saw a normal puppy. When they saw Stanley, his appearance forced them to decide whether to accept or reject the difference.
The pair decided to come together as one to tell Ellie’s story in “Own Your Uniqueness: Stand for Acceptance.”
Christian Calgi helped Pack write the book that tells the story of Elli, a girl who returns to school after losing her hair due to her cancer treatments, and her dog Stanley, who possesses physical challenges of his own.
The book tells how Elli experienced bullying by her classmates and the retaliation she experiences after the bullies receive punishment for their actions. Exploring the stories of many children teased due to their various differences, the book also tells the story of Lauren, a girl teased due to her red hair and freckles and David, a boy confined to a wheelchair.
After the bullying reaches a head, who should come to the rescue, but Stanley, who comes to help the bullies understand how their actions affect others.
Calgi said she decided to get involved to help shed some light on bullying, acceptance and things all children go through.
Pack said they wanted the book to attract everyone to read it, Stanley helped with that. Animals reach everyone, she said.
Brian Hamm, Stanley’s veterinarian, said the human world could learn much from the animal world. Other dogs interact with Stanley, but then move on and do not bully him.
“He’s got his difference but yet no other animal bullies him or makes fun of him or teases him,” Hamm said. “Everybody kind of accepts him for who he is.”
Hamm said as a parent of three young children, he understands how no one wants their child to be bullied. However, he said while parents may not be able to stop their child from being bullied, they can have an impact on whether their child becomes a bully.
When he sees his children noticing another’s physical differences, he said he used the opportunity to have a discussion with them. The child will notice, he said. Parents cannot teach their children to not notice other’s physical differences.
While they will notice, he said they do not have to react negatively. Parents and grandparents can have a positive impact on whether their child teases those with differences, or reacts with empathy. He said having a conversation can help the child curb innate responses such as laughing and making fun of others. Children may not know another way of reacting unless their parents teach them, Hamm said.
Calgi said as a parent, she noticed her daughter Lauren looks for Calgi’s reaction after noting someone with differences.
Parents can help educate their children, she said. Those who bullied Cunningham due to her school absences, Calgi said, did not realize what she went though.
“When you go through it and you come out this strong, how strong Ellie is, and you still get bullied, it’s tough, it’s really tough,” she said.
Pack said she hopes the parents also learn as they read the book to their children. Hopefully, everyone will learn a lesson they can then pass on to the younger generation.
Cunningham said children can also teach their parents about bullying through the book. Sometimes, she said children learn the behavior after hearing their parents talk negatively about another.
Since writing the book, Cunningham said others have noticed what she went through. Pack said Cunningham and Stanley reach out to others experiencing difficulties in their own way. Often, people will approach Stanley for a simple hug. Many search for someone to cling to because they’ve lost all hope, she said. Stanley and Ellie represent that hope.
The book can be purchased for $8 through the American Childhood Cancer website at ACCO.org. Pack said all the proceeds go to a local girl with cancer and her family. When a child goes through cancer, Pack said, their whole lives become immersed in their treatment. Any money that can be raised for them becomes a blessing because parents often must leave their jobs to live at the hospital with their children. The community can help provide the support those families need, she said.
Cunningham said she simply hopes the book changes the community’s conversation about bullying.
“(I want it to) show other people that bullying wasn’t cool and it shouldn’t even be a word,” she said.