By L.L. Brasier – Detroit Free Press Staff Writer

It was heady stuff for John Cole’s fourth-grade class at William Beaumont Elementary School in Waterford. And emotional enough that some cried.

The 10-year-olds were participating in a Bucketfillers For Life exercise – a program designed by a retired business executive to help children get along better and learn life skills – empathy, fair play, the value of kindness.

The idea is simple. Everyone carries an imaginary bucket – a person’s soul – and we can fill it up by doing kind things, or deplete it by being rude or bullying. Last week, hundreds of kids in Berkley, Waterford and Troy schools exchanged ideas and watched presentations.

The Waterford fourth-graders were asked to list 10 reasons why they love and respect a special person in their lives, then take the list home and share it with that person, filling up that person’s bucket, and in doing so, their own.

“You love me even though you have arthritis,” Brandon White, 10, of Waterford read haltingly to his class, about his mother. Beginning to cry, he continued, “You love me when you didn’t have to.” At the end, “Most of all, you love me and I love you.” Some of his classmates cried with him.

His teacher, John Cole, reading a list for his own daughter, Megan, 17, also struggled with tears: “You cherish and honor your family,” “You have great moral values” and “You believe in yourself.”

As his students sat rapt – most said they had never seen a teacher tear up – he told them, “I’m going to go home and write out a list for my wife and son, then cry a river.

Said Keishun Dailey, 10, of Waterford afterward: “Now I know that if you don’t say you love somebody very much, you won’t be filling up your bucket. And it’s OK to cry.”

Bucketfillers For Life was created by Merrill Lundgren, 88, a retired insurance executive, working out of his home in Hamburg Township, with the help of his grown children. He estimates that about 40,000 school kids in the state, mostly elementary students, have attended workshops and assemblies in the four years since he first presented it in schools.

He came up with the idea several years ago when he was attending an insurance convention and heard a presentation on bucket-filling. “It intrigued me,” he said, “I believe one of the greatest enemies of mankind is self-centeredness.” He did presentations for corporations, then went to schools.

Experts on bullying and school violence are encouraged by such programs, but said schools need to develop ways to measure how effective such programs are. “Any proactive program that really works on improving kids’ values and encourages positive interaction with each other is a good thing,” said Russell Skiba, of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University.

But he wants hard data in the weeks and months after a presentation, something few schools gather. Is there less bullying? Do fewer kids get sent to the office? Are kids doing better academically? “I have to give these schools credit for searching our what sounds like a great alternative. But if they want to be pioneers, they should really be evidence-based.”

Karen Gomez, principal at Donelson Hills Elementary School in Waterford, held the program at her school a month ago.

“It sounds simplistic, even kind of corny,” she said, “but it was very powerful.”

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Stacey Lundgren of Bucketfillers For Life, Inc. during an entertaining role-play exercise at Beaumont Elementary School, Waterford, MI