The tone of the message was ideally targeted to the audience of St. Peter’s Catholic Secondary School students last Friday morning.
Dressed in a tee shirt and ball cap, the thirty-something speaker told a personal story of loss and recovery using the students’ own language, sprinkled with a healthy dose of self-deprecating humour. The students responded with a standing ovation.
Jason Alexander explained that as a youngster his family moved a lot, which made it difficult for him to form lasting friendships at school. That changed when he landed in Norwood and met his friend James Bidgood with whom he formed a fast friendship that helped him fit into his new community. Together they navigated teenage years and beyond, and for 25 years they found support, inspiration and encouragement in their friendship. With a positive attitude and a willingness to try new things, Bidgood taught his friend to stay positive and never to say “can’t” or “won’t”.
In February 2015, Bidgood died during a snowmobile accident when he missed a curve and collided with a car, leaving behind a wife and three children. Struggling with the loss of his friend, Alexander shared his story and an idea he had been contemplating with a passenger in the cab he drove for a living in Peterborough a few months later as he drove her to Tim Horton’s for work. His story brought her to tears, so as an apology, Alexander paid her the fare himself as he dropped her off.
Months later at a drive through window, he was told his Tim Horton’s coffee purchase was paid for and recognized the server as his passenger from that fateful morning. On the lid of his cup, she had written “for James” with a heart. The idea he had shared with her that day was to honour the memory of his friend through small gestures of kindness, paying it forward, as the saying goes. Bidgood was known for purchasing coffee for customers behind him in line and then waving frantically, imaging the bewildered recipients scratching their heads trying to identify their benefactor. He enjoyed little jokes like that.
For Alexander, her small gesture had an immediate impact. Recognizing that a stranger not only remembered his story but followed through on his original idea, he was encouraged to try out his plan. That night he posted a photo of the lid with the message on Facebook, and within a few days, the message had gone viral. Within a month the post had over half a million views.
While the media frenzy has subsided, the #OneforJames movement continues. Alexander now is delivering his message in a variety of other ways, including speaking engagements like the one at St. Peter’s. His message is simple and clear, and is addressed to everyone. Calling the movement a “kindness crusade”, he argues it is easier to be nice to others than to be a jerk (his words), it feels better and best of all, the attitude is contagious. His expectations are realistic, and he believes that even if only 1% of those who share the message perform a single act of kindness, they make the world a better place, and one where his friend James would fit right in. Based on their response, the students agreed.
This event was organized by local teacher Julie Vallieres as part of her Mental Health initiative. Returning from an extended leave as she battled debilitating bouts of depression in the fall of 2015, Vallieres formed a student group called “Change Your Mind.” Their objective is to destroy the stigma associated with mental illness in their school community through education, open communication and the promotion of a healthy lifestyle. Funded in part by donations received from the local branch of Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), Vallieres’ group is evidence of the many efforts at elementary and secondary school levels aimed at supporting mental health initiatives in local schools. Last month Millbrook South Cavan Public School hosted the delivery of the safeTALK program: a half-day alertness training that prepares anyone over the age of 15 to become a suicide-alert helper. With students as young as 9 years of age using terms like “anxious” and “depressed” to describe their feelings, staff at schools at all age levels are seeking ways to help their students cope with the pressures they are facing in school and in life. As Alexander explained, problems become easier to address with the support of family and friends, but to get that support, they must be shared. Let’s talk… KG