Bully Beaters

A woman and her dog, who both have muscle diseases, share life lessons with students.

by Quest Staff on February 20, 2009 - 11:21am

In the four years since Gabrielle Ford wrote a guest feature for Quest, she and her dog Izabel (Izzy) have become prominent figures on the national speaking circuit. Gabe’s first book will hit the streets in late February 2009.

As a teenager with Friedreich’s ataxia, Gabe often was bullied by other students, both verbally and physically. Muscle weakness also forced her to give up her beloved ballet. By high school graduation she had withdrawn into a small world of depression and denial.

Everything changed when she acquired a floppy-eared black-and-tan coonhound she nicknamed Izzy, who put fun back into her life.

Izzy & Gabe on their front porch

“Izzy came to me at a time when I desperately needed a friend — a friend who could love me unconditionally. My love for her forced me out of a depression that was consuming me,” she said.

Thanks to the powerful bond that formed between the girl and her dog, and with unending support from her mother, Gabe gradually came out of her shell.

Then, in an amazing coincidence, Izzy, too, developed a neuromuscular disease with symptoms of muscle weakness and imbalance that were very similar to Gabe’s. Caring for her forced her back out into the world. In 2003, the cable TV network Animal Planet did a special segment on their remarkable relationship.

Over time, Gabe, accompanied by Izzy, began speaking to students about the deep emotional effects that bullying can have on its victims. Starting in local schools in her hometown of Fenton, Mich., her speaking engagements grew to encompass the whole state and then the entire country.

Now in her book (co-authored with Donna Rhine), Still Dancing – A New Stage, A Different Dance: Making the World a Better Place One School at a Time, Gabe recounts her childhood experiences and the journey that brought her to today.

That journey required her to hurdle a seemingly endless series of mishaps and crises. Both her mother and step-father required extensive treatments for cancer; her grandfather suffered a massive stroke; her beloved aunt committed suicide; and Gabe herself suffered multiple fractures and nerve damage to her arm when she lost her balance and fell.

Gabe and Izzy
Gabe and Izzy ride side-by-side in wheelchairs through an airport on their way to a speaking engagement.

Today, Gabe, 29, and Izzy, 11, are in heavy demand as presenters in schools across the country.

“Telling kids not to bully is not enough,” she says. “Understanding comes when students see and feel the effects it has on a person’s life.” To bring that experience to her audiences, she describes, no holds barred, the name-calling and physical abuse she herself endured for so long.

“I sometimes wonder if the kids in high school who called me names think of me now,” Gabe wrote in her 2004 Quest article, “From a Cocoon to a Butterfly in Six Years. “I wonder if they remember how they tripped me, knocked my books out of my hands, slammed my locker shut while I was trying to open it, threw spit wads at me, and hit and bruised my legs.”

Her story obviously has a profound effect on listeners. The appendix of her new book is filled with scores of letters, e-mails and hand-written cards from well-wishers.

One reads, “I am in 4th grade on Mackinac Island and I think it was really great you could make it up to the island and speak to us. I won't be a bully and I will stick up for other kids that are getting picked on and be their friend. I hope Izzy is with you for a long time.”

To learn more about Gabe’s speaking engagements and to order her new book, visit www.gabeandizzy.com.

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