The congregation of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Capitola watched in awe as a man on crutches walked down the aisle to receive communion this fall. Most of us had not seen Capitola resident Bryan Stow, walk since the San Francisco Giants devotee was brutally beaten in an unprovoked attack from two Dodgers fans in 2011. The former paramedic suffered severe brain damage, and, at first, wasn’t expected to live. With his family by his side and the national media tracking his progress, Stow endured five hospitalizations, months in a coma on artificial life support and numerous surgeries.
Until recently, Stow had been receiving his host each week from a wheelchair. On that sunny Sunday afternoon, he told the sacristan that he would now be walking on his own—a testament to his tireless effort to overcome his limitations. Thanks to physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy, Stow, who lives in Capitola with his mother and father, Ann and Dave, can speak, stand, read, write, and eat. With the help of his caregivers, Stow, 46, now does weight training, swims and rides a stationary elliptical bike.
These days, the former paramedic is still saving lives—this time by educating and talking to people about the dangers of bullying. His next speech on the topic will be Friday, Dec. 4 at Scotts Valley Middle School, where his daughter is a student. He hopes kids can learn something from what he went through.
“That’s my favorite part, sharing my story with others and letting kids know what I went through, so they can be better because of it,” Stow tells GT.
Stow’s new path began when he was in a Los Gatos rehab program, working with speech language pathologist Brandy Dickinson. To road-test his newly developed linguistic and mobility skills, Dickinson arranged for Stow to do a presentation for an after-school program teaching kids about first responders and how to dial 911.
Stow had to be prepared to answer the question, “What happened to you?” to an audience of children. Together they decided on “I got hurt by adult bullies,” which led to Stow’s new mission to empower a change in attitude for young people with bullying tendencies.
In August, Ann Stow, with help from daughters Erin and Bonnie Stow, established the nonprofit Bryan Stow Foundation. The goal is to inspire awareness of what happens when bullying behavior continues into adulthood. Stow is now offering his presentation to local schools and organizations, and plans to take the program statewide with funds raised by the foundation.
Sometimes a little education can go a long way, and local clinical psychologist Lucie Hemmen says the full extent of bullying can be difficult for people to fully grasp.
“When the topic of bullying comes up, people think of overt acts of aggression, like in Bryan’s case,” Hemmen says. “Most acts of bullying that occur daily with young people are less violent physically, yet still significantly damaging emotionally. Many acts are not direct, so even the bullies themselves don’t think they are bullying. Gossip and exclusion are common forms of covert bullying many teens suffer and participate in. The more we are able to identify all forms of bullying, the better we can support emotional conscientiousness for everyone.”
At his first public appearance in May, Stow addressed 200 fourth-to-eighth grade students at Baymonte Christian School in Scotts Valley. His parents, sisters and ex-wife Jacqueline Kain, and Dickinson showed up in support. The stage had two monitors set up, one showing photos of Stow before and after the incident and another with a script to help Stow keep his focus.
The slideshow let Stow reveal his sense of humor. When the “before” photo of him is shown, he says, “I was strong and handsome,” following that immediately with, “Oh wait, I’m still handsome!”
Elliot Stone, owner of Yama Martial Arts Studio, spoke alongside Stow, and had the students take a pledge against bullying. He also gave guidance to the young, captive audience.
“Stand up to the bully; speak up to an adult. Lead by example with your own actions on how you treat others,” Stone said. “If you tell an adult, you are not being a tattletale—you are saving someone’s life. People have killed themselves over what others have done to them or what others have said about them. Are you really going to be scared of being a tattletale when you could be saving a life?”
Earlier this month, Stow gave his first presentation for older kids at American High School in Fremont, and his family was again there showing their support.
“There were over 100 ninth graders, all really listening,” Ann Stow says. “A number of them even went up to Bryan after, so they could meet him.”
Erin Stow admits that at first they weren’t sure how high school kids would respond.
“Watching them really being attentive and paying attention to Bry was amazing,” she says. “After, one of the boys got up to shake Bryan’s hand, which started a line of them wanting to thank him and get pictures.”
Scotts Valley Middle School is next on Stow’s speaking agenda. Principal Mary Lonhart says the idea began percolating after a conversation she had with Kain, Stow’s ex-wife. “We are fortunate to have him share his story and to be able to learn from his message,” Lonhart says.
Family therapist Michael Leimbach works as a counselor at both Scotts Valley High and Family & Youth Services agency. He says school leaders and parents can make a big difference in the lives of their kids by paying as much attention as possible to the issue of bullying.
“Bullying is a learned behavior, not something we’re born with,” Leimbach says. (Leimbach understands Stow’s difficult journey through rehab firsthand, as he overcame tragedy when he was paralyzed at a high school football game in Santa Cruz.) “Whether it occurs as a result of stress, trying to fit in, or attempting to make ourselves feel better by making others look bad, it is a significant cause of childhood scars and can continue into adulthood,” says Leimbach. Adding to the complexity is the growing number of social media outlets, creating more opportunities to judge, criticize and humiliate others. The more attention brought to this issue, the better we can understand its origins, interrupt the behavior, and manage its long-lasting and often devastating effects.”
Tim Flannery, former San Francisco Giants third-base coach and guitarist/singer, is presenting a concert on Jan. 30, at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz to raise money for the Bryan Stow Foundation. For more information or to donate, visit bryanstowfoundation.org.