Anti-bullying advocate Austen Radowits speaks from his harrowing experiences as a victim.
Bullying in school became his daily reality after he recovered from life-threatening injuries from a 2008 dirt-bike crash.
The Drayton Valley teenager’s physical injuries might have subsided, but intangible emotional scars began to surface when schoolmates labelled the former basketball captain “the retard” or “the vegetable.”
Listening to his eloquent account of bullying this Monday at four Stettler schools, students and teachers alike could attest that Radowits is anything but mentally challenged.
A couple of weeks shy of his 19th birthday, Radowits has become a popular proponent of speaking out and taking action against a burgeoning problem in society — not only in schools, but in all walks of life.
The apprentice mechanic is trying to equip students — and society — with the tools needed to counter abusers who bully others physically or mentally, online or in person.
As part of anti-bullying awareness week, he took that message to students at Stettler Elementary School, Stettler Middle School, William E. Hay Composite High School and Christ-King Catholic School.
Regardless of the grade level, the underlying lesson for students was to report abuse.
“Stand up and talk to your parents,” Radowits said. “I’m not saying stand up and go and fight the guys, but stand up and tell your parents or tell your teacher.
“If it’s cyberbullying, save that message, save it on the computer, print it off and take it to somebody. Then, you have proof.
“Stand up to it, (but) don’t put yourself in danger. If you’re standing up for somebody, don’t put yourself in any danger that you’re going to become the target, but alert somebody so that they can deal with it, too.”
The repercussions of not acting on such abuse can be hurtful in the short- and long-term, Radowits said.
“It builds up and it brings down your self-esteem.”
Personally, he remembered being so angry and frustrated with relentless verbal bullying that he would return home from school and punch holes in the walls.
Even some of his abusers became embarrassed with their transgressions.
Radowits recalled how one of the bullies couldn’t look at him face to face later in a retail store, because he was so sheepish about his earlier actions, which had seemed so “cool” in a peer-group setting.
“I’ve had a couple of them that have apologized,” he said. “I’ve gotten some texts from a couple of them. One, before I left high school, they came up and talked to me. They apologized, but school was over, so I didn’t really have to deal with them anymore, and we all went our separate ways.
“It was good to know that I got a couple of apologies from them and kind of cleared the air with them, but …
“The kids that had the morals and the upbringing that if you’ve done something wrong, you need to apologize for it, those are the guys that came back and said, ‘Sorry, buddy, I don’t expect you to forgive me, but I’m sorry.’ ”
Radowits has come a long way in his recovery, both physically and mentally.
“Injury-wise, I’m feeling great,” he said. “My self-esteem over the past couple of years, I’ve built it up. My inner strength is so high.
“I love speaking to kids and talking to people and meeting people and hearing their stories.
“As far as medically, I’m healed as much as I’m going to heal ever. My injuries were pretty severe. They weren’t really sure how much I was going to recover at the end. I’m able to drive and walk and talk, and work full-time, so it’s good.”
After his four Stettler presentations, Radowits headed to Oyen for another speaking engagement.
Then it was on to Edmonton for a 6 a.m. appearance at a TV station this morning.
He wraps up a busy week Thursday in Spruce View for a school speech.
Dressed in blue jeans and sweater on Monday, Radowits could have been mistaken for a high school student, which he believes makes for an effective connection during his school presentations.
He was familiar with the Stettler region, after making school visits to Erskine and Bashaw last year.
Radowits found receptive audiences in Stettler, much like in other small towns.
“I’ve spoken to a couple of big city schools, and you can definitely tell the difference between the big city schools and the smaller community schools,” he said after Monday’s final Stettler presentation.
“The smaller community schools are very appreciative and they tend to take a lot away. The bigger city schools, when I’m speaking to 600 to 700 kids, I still do think they take a lot away, but I don’t think it’s as impactful as being more one-on-one with them.
“In general, every school that I talk to has something good to say afterwards. I get an email back saying this has really helped this student, or at least one student or a couple of students have been influenced. It’s more than worth it, if it’s helped one person.”
Radowits has spoken in most parts of Alberta and has had a few speaking engagements in Manitoba and British Columbia.
He plans to attend college in the early part of 2013, but remains committed to spreading the anti-bullying message.
“While I’m fairly young, I’m going to try to keep doing as much as I can for these guys,” he said.