When five fifth-grade boys at Franklin Elementary School in Mankato, Minnesota, saw a boy with learning disabilities getting bullied on the playground, they didn't turn their heads and look away. They didn't confront the bullies in a way that might have escalated the situation. Instead, they hatched a plan to protect the boy by pulling him into their group.
Jake Burgess was upset when he saw James Willmert, a fellow fifth-grader from another classroom, getting teased on the playground, so he talked to his friend Jack Pemble about it.
"They were like, using him and taking advantage of him," Jake told KARE 11 news. "Because he's easier to pick on and it's just not right," Jack added.
The two boys talked to their other friends — Gus Gartzke, Tyler Jones and Landon Kopischke — and together the boys decided they would make it their mission to have Willmert's back.
They started by inviting James to sit with them at lunch. Then they headed out to the playground for touch football and other games.
"He used to not want to go out for recess or anything, it would be like a struggle," says Margi Willmert, James' mom. "And now he can barely eat his lunch to get outside to play with those guys."
And the more the boys played together, the more they all learned about Willmert, including the boy's passion for sports (he has a notebook categorizing over 600 college team names,) and his struggles (he was adopted from Colombia, and six years later his adoptive father was killed in a bicycle accident.)
They were also surprised to learn that Willmert didn't have his own video gaming system. So they pooled their money (and borrowed a little from their parents,) to buy him a new PlayStation and some games. When they came over to James' house to deliver the new goodies and play video games with him, they learned that it was the first time that kids from school had ever come over to play.
The boys weren't after any kind of recognition for what they did. They just wanted to make sure that a kid on the playground wasn't getting mistreated. However, at the end of the school year, they did get some well-deserved recognition. Mankato Area Public Schools honored the boys with its Spirit of the Youth Award.
The best part? They gained a new friend. "He's an awesome kid to hang out with," says Jake.
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