"Unite Against Bullying" concert showcased talent and speakers to raise awareness about bullying

The Cleburne County community rallied together at the fairgrounds Tuesday for a free concert in support of "Unite Against Bullying.” 

Brenda O'Brien, songwriter and West Memphis native, united with local organizations Teen Recruiters and Speak Life to present a night of free entertainment with the goal of raising anti-bullying awareness.  O'Brien was motivated to start "Unite Against Bullying" and release her latest song, "Remember," after reading about Rebecca Sedwick, a 12-year-old Florida girl who jumped to her death after being bullied. 

"It's a regional, local problem," said O'Brien. "Local communities have to address this issue." 

Barbara Owens, founder and CEO of Teen Recruiters and executive director of Speak Life, became aware of O'Brien's program through the internet, and the two formed an immediate connection. With her West Memphis roots, O'Brien said bringing the "Unite Against Bullying" program to Heber Springs seemed like a natural move. 

Owens says she’s constantly fighting the perception that Heber Springs doesn’t have a bullying problem. 

“We’re not special. We’re going to have these problems just like everyone else,” said Owens. “I think what makes us special is admitting we have a problem and uniting a community to fight for the kids.” 

Owens created Teen Recruiters, a nonprofit that encourages teens to give back to the community, more than 2 years ago. Speak Life, a program created specifically to address the issue of bullying, began about 6 months ago. Speak Life recognizes the power of words, both positive and negative, and the impact they can have on students. 

"We're tired of hearing 'That's just the way it is' or 'that's how it was when I was a kid'" said Brad Bates, assistant director of Speak Life. "Everyone has the power to stop this, just by thinking before you speak." 

A common theme throughout the night was the power of the "team" in combating bullying. 

"We need a team mentality," said State Sen. Missy Irvin (R - Mountain View). "If you see it happening, tell them to knock it off." 

Collin Engler, a 6th-grade student from Greenbrier, started his own team in response to bullying he endured at school.  Collin, facing a crowded audience, bravely spoke of his own personal experience as a victim of harassment. After years of bullying, Collin and a teacher, sick and tired of the constant abuse, formed a makeshift task force to put a stop to the problem. Collin and other students became vigilant toward any potential issues in the classroom, sticking up for victims and reaching out to befriend them. 

Collin’s voice eventually made its way from Greenbrier schools to the Dick Tracy comic strip. 

Mike Curtis of Greenbrier, writer of Dick Tracy comic strip, was already researching an anti-bullying storyline when he met Collin through church. 

“I don’t remember a lot of the bullying from when I was a kid,” Curtis said. “I needed someone from today.” 

Collin and his mother, Millie Engler, a teacher at Greenbrier, appear as characters in the anti-bullying storyline. Collin recently started the sixth grade and says bullying is no longer a major problem for him. 

Curtis noted that many of his colleagues and other creatives share a similar background as victims of bullying. 

“I think a lot of the times we [comics] would take the stories and the talents that we would share with other people, and, when it gets rejected, we turn it around and do something else with it,” said Curtis. 

Local artist Ellen Hobgood had several of her works on display, each created as part of a healing process for past and present issues in her life. 

“There’s a lot more depression and anxiety in our kids than we realize,” Hobgood said. “Telling them to get over it is not working.” 

Hobgood says it’s important to reach out to students who have interests other than sports so that they, too, can experience what it’s like to be part of a team. 

“We don’t have a lot of youth programs other than sports,” said Hobgood. “Not everyone fits under the sports complex.” 

Performers at the show included Glenn Parish & Peyton Loeschner with the Imagine That Band, Kris Thomas of The Voice fame, The Granville Band featuring Justin Merrick, Wendy Moten, and more. 

Among the attendees were Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, State Senator Missy Irvin, Heber Springs Mayor Jimmy Clark, Bikers Against Child Abuse (BACA), State Representative Josh Miller, the Heber Springs Panther football team, and others.