\WALLA WALLA -- Natalia Flores eagerly volunteered to be one of the bull-riding competitors during a recent rodeo presentation at Camp Fire's after-school program at Prospect Point Elementary. But even pretending to ride a bull in the spirit of the real thing takes work.
With the heavy vest and oversized fringed chaps worn by a real cowboy weighing her down, the 9-year-old just missed hitting the winning score.
JJ Harrison, professional rodeo clown, had anticipated the disappointment that comes with losing a challenge, and directed the young crowd prior to the event on how to show their support.
"What do you think we can do for the person that didn't win, so that they still feel good?" he asked.
The kids quickly offered suggestions. Say good job. You'll do better next time. Always cheer them, too.
Harrison was at Prospect Point on Wednesday as part of a new anti-bullying effort of Walla Walla's Camp Fire USA program.
The bullying prevention effort will take Harrison to each of the program's five after-school sites over three weeks, with the goal of getting children to talk about the realities of bullying and the right ways to address it. Harrison is channeling his charged rodeo clown persona to convey the anti-bullying message to participating youth.
The program is being supported in part by a $3,000 School's Out Washington Quality Enhancement grant recently awarded to the local Camp Fire program.
While not a new challenge, bullying is emerging as a more serious concern for families and schools, as today's youth tap into ways to target each other that transcend playground taunts.
From cell phones that transmit texts, videos and photos, to Internet sites that create virtual communities, bullying these days doesn't require face-to-face attacks, or even knowing who is behind them.
Karen Wolf, executive director of the local Camp Fire, said a conversation was started on how to address bullying with the best chance of reaching children. Around the same time, Harrison visited Berney Elementary's Camp Fire program in his rodeo-clown garb on a friend's request. The visit, attended by Wolf, showed her the potential of his notoriety to command respect and attention from students.
"He had such good energy, and the kids were having such fun with him," Wolf said.
This week, Harrison was joined by Garett Wolfe, a professional bull-rider; Annie Mackenzie, a barrel racer and roper for the Walla Walla Community College rodeo program; and Buster Barton, the head rodeo coach at the community college. Cowboy hats, cowboy boots, denim, decorated buckles and belts were the norm, except for Harrison, who wears sneakers, sporty shorts and jersey, and carefully placed white paint under his eyes and around his mouth. A large black cowboy hat completed the look.
The rodeo themes lent well to the anti-bullying message, and not just because many cowboys have direct contact with bulls. Being a good cowboy means recognizing that a bull is a 2,000-pound animal, and that the right gear can save lives. It requires understanding the bull and its strength.
"I respect that bull and know he can kill me," Harrison said. "I run away. I hide in a barrel. I don't hit the bull in the face."
Throughout the hour-long program, Harrison shared his special brand of entertainment, getting the kids to cheer and scream when appropriate, and had them running around and trying new challenges.
Besides the bull-riding event, the children got to try barrel-racing by running around three adults standing in for barrels. The students competed as a team to earn prizes, and cheered and congratulated each other when they won.
The conversation then shifted to more realistic daily challenges, like playground encounters where not everyone gets along. Harrison stressed the difference between bullying and playful teasing. Friends might tease each other from time to time, or someone may act meanly occasionally when they've had a bad day. But bullying is different.
"It's intentional, and it's repeated," he said.
Harrison believes part of the key is self-confidence -- when children feel secure enough to look beyond the taunts or aggression, they will be more ready to report it to a trusting adult. Harrison said he was himself bullied in school, but that his confidence and sense of humor deflected much of it.
In the next two weeks, Harrison will return to each of the schools, for three visits total at each site, and build on the earlier sessions. After-school camps are held at Berney, Green Park, Prospect Point, Edison and Sharpstein elementary schools.
This first week was a chance for Harrison to present his persona, a figure that was considered easier for the students to look up to and respect right away.
"It gives you instant credibility," he said.
On his second visit, Harrison plans to wear his rodeo gear without the make-up, and on the last day, arrive in his regular clothes -- as JJ, the adult.
"By then it says, this is a real guy. I'm an adult. If you're being bullied, you can tell this person," he said.
As a parent watching the program kick off, Peggy Kuntz said she was impressed with what she saw and the effort to tackle such a relevant issue.
"I think it's always good to have these conversations," said Kuntz, whose son Rhett, 7, was in the group.
"I don't know if we're hearing about it more, but at schools it's becoming a very real issue," she said about bullying.
Despite her defeat at the bull-riding contest, Flores got to take home a pink stuffed bear as a prize. As she prepared to head home for the day, she gave the program a positive review.
"I want to be one of those guys," she said.
Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8317.