DANVILLE — Shortly after turning 13, a young dancer named Gabrielle "Gabe" Ford from Michigan learned she had a genetic neuromuscular disease.
She tried to hide it at her new school, but students noticed her slurred speech and unsteady gait. That made her a target of bullying long before bullying gained the national attention it has today.
"I was hoping to make at least a few friends," recalled Ford, who was starting eighth grade. But "kids threw spit wads at me. In the hall, they would shove me into the wall, even other people.
"The emotional bullying was the most hurtful," she continued, adding kids called her names, spread rumors about her and excluded her from activities. "Even a broken bone will heal in time. But if someone hurts your feelings and it leaves an emotional scar, that almost never goes away."
The bullying, which lasted through high school, sent Ford into a deep depression and caused her to isolate herself for four years. She overcame it with the help of a black-and-tan coonhound she named Izzy and a strength and determination that came from caring for the dog.
For the last 11 years, Ford — now 31, of Viera, Fla. — has shared with students across the country her story and message aimed at preventing bullying "one school at a time." She came to North Ridge Middle School on Friday.
"I just really like her approach of trying to get students to be more compassionate toward each other and more empathetic," said school resource officer Amy Wasson, who invited Ford to speak after reading her book, "Still Dancing."
"She wants them to stop and really think about what they say and do and how it could affect others before they do something that might be hurtful."
Sitting in the wheelchair with two other canine pets by her side, Ford told a packed gym she used to dance tap, jazz and ballet and dreamed of becoming a ballerina. Then she was diagnosed with Friedreich's ataxia, a degeneration of the nerve tissue in the spinal cord that causes unsteadiness, speech problems and can lead to heart disease.
On top of the illness, Ford said, she endured physical and emotional abuse every day at school. In class, a girl who sat behind her regularly hit her on the head with a textbook. In the hall, kids would trip her or knock her books out of her arms, scattering them to the floor. In the gym, two girls towered over her and threatened to slap her if she didn't stop talking to a certain boy.
Ford said she never told anyone; she was too ashamed. Her mom finally learned about the bullying during her daughter's senior year when she noticed softball-size bruises on her legs.
Ford recalled sinking into a deep depression after she twisted her ankle and stumbled down stairs at her graduation ceremony and then was taunted by classmates. She refused to leave her house and had panic attacks the few times she tried.
"My biggest fear was, 'What if I ran into the bullies? What would they think of me now?'" she recalled, adding she was in a wheelchair by then.
When she was 21, Ford decided she wanted a dog. Though her mom, Rhonda Hillman, was reluctant at first, she realized it might be just what her daughter needed.
"I wasn't consumed with my depression. I was focused on taking care of another living creature," Ford said, adding that in a tragic coincidence, Izzy developed and later died from a rare type of progressive muscle disease. "When my dog became sick, she had to go to the vets and surgeons. My mom made me responsible for her, so I had to go along with her and do all of the talking. Over time, I overcame my fear of going out in public."
After Ford and Izzy were featured on the television channel Animal Planet, the two were invited to schools to share their story. Ford and Hillman — accompanied by family pets Dinah, Izzy's cousin, and Dominic — have been spreading their anti-bullying message since then.
"Bullying is a choice," said Ford, who urged students to make the right ones. "I don't want you to just be a bystander. I want you to get involved in a positive way. I want you to tell (bullies) it's not right, and it's not going to be tolerated any more. I want you to stand up for (victims) and make them feel like they have the power to get help and they don't have to be treated that way."
Seventh-grader Trevor Brunner said he'll long remember Ford's words and hopes they have a lifelong effect on his peers.
"It may not always be easy to tell if you're hurting someone's feelings," he said. "But if you even think you may be, you should stop and even apologize to that person. And if you see bullying, you should tell the principal and stand up for the student."
Later, Principal Jason Bletzinger asked students to sign an anti-bullying pledge, in which they promise to be part of the solution, not the problem. "We can right here, right now, stop the cycle of bullying."