FORT PLAIN — Students throughout Fort Plain’s Harry Hoag Elementary School donned capes and masks and stood up for what was right in the school’s gymnasium on Friday.
They stood up to play-acting bullies and conquered fears with self-confidence with the help of Tom Murphy, Rick Yarosh and Amos — Yarosh’s black Labrador assistant — from the Sweethearts and Heroes motivational speaking program.
"We aim to educate students not just in the traditional academics, but also in social and emotional settings. We want to help our students continue to grow into great people," Harry Hoag Principal Lauren Chrisman said in a statement. "Having Sweethearts and Heroes come in to speak with our students gives them a different perspective on the world and also the tools to be advocates for themselves and one another."
The speaking duo and four-legged assistant are part of a group that brings a message to students around the country about the impact bullying has on schools, neighborhoods and individuals. On Friday, they spoke about bystander empowerment, empathy and leadership to all of the elementary audiences.
"Through knowledge and communication, we are committed to bringing our message to communities — not only to help the victims, but especially to empower bystanders to make a difference," the group’s website, sweetheartsandheroes.com, states. "We all have the potential to be someone’s hero. The message is so universal it can help create climates of empathy, kindness and leadership in all settings."
Murphy, who graduated from Cooperstown High School, was an academic and athletic star at the State University of New York at Brockport. With a variety of professional interests — he is a railroad control specialist, martial artist and restaurateur — he brought passion and comedy along with his message of heroes having empathy and compassion for others.
Yarosh, who was wounded by an improvised explosive device in Iraq in 2006, delivered his own message about sweethearts giving him self-confidence and how Fort Plain students can do that for each other. He told a story about a five-year old girl accepting him despite the fact he looks different due to his injuries.
"Sweethearts like her are unforgettable. A five-year old girl changed a 24-year old guy’s life," he said. "You can do that too. You can do that every day. You can help make another person’s life better."