From the Daily Press & Argus
Livingston County, MI – March 8, 2004

By Christopher Nagy

“I’m an old man and I’m nearing the end of my life, and you are young people at the beginning of your lives….I’ve learned some things that I want to share with you.”

So starts the program Brighton resident Merrill Lundgren has brought to students throughout Livingston County’s five school districts.
Lundgren has been a motivational speaker for the past 25 years, but it was only last May that he started taking his message of kindness and appreciation to a younger crowd. Lundgren performs a program entitled “How to be the Most Popular Kid in Class” to all county schools.
His school presentations center around “bucket-filling.” Lundgren uses the term to represent self-esteem, and students learn that a positive compliment or random act of kindness toward others will “fill that person’s bucket.”
“What I have them do in class is fill a bucket for Mom and Dad,” he said.
Students make a bucket-filling list for their parents of all the things that their mother and father does for them. Students then list the things they will do at home to show that they appreciate what their parents do.
The idea seems simple, but when the students read their lists to the class, they are often overcome with emotion.
“When the kids leave in the morning, they might tell their mom they love her or their dad they love him, but they never tell them why,” Lundgren said. “When they talk about their mother and father in class, their feelings overwhelm them because they’re talking about all those things that mom and dad do for them that they never thought about before.”
The program centers around filling the buckets of parents, but Lundgren encourages students to keep filling buckets of others, including their classmates.
“The first one spreads the gospel of love and appreciation in the family,” Lundgren said. “The second one does it in the school.”
Lundgren began his work as a motivational speaker 25 years ago at the age of 59 after quitting his job as a senior vice president for a life insurance company.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I just knew there was something else out there,” he said. “I guess I’ve always been somewhat introspective and I have always been reasonably good on my feet.”
His speaking programs were geared toward adults until last spring when he was asked to participate in Career Day at Three Fires Middle School in Howell. Since he doubted students at the school had any idea of what a motivational speaker does, Lundgren instead created the “How to be the Most Popular Kid in Class” program.
“It went very very well,” he said
Since then, he has spoken to 1,500 students in eight school districts in and around Livingston County.
A major focus for his presentations has been in Hartland Consolidated Schools, where he is now in the middle of bringing his program to the district’s entire fifth-grade class at Farms Intermediate School.
“We all met and sat down to talk about the direction and message of his program,” said Keenan Simpson, principal at Farms Intermediate School. “Kids can always use another lesson in being nice to one another.”
Lundgren’s program just gives them another avenue to show that kindness, added Kara Cotton, assistant principal.
“We don’t have a curriculum in the school that really deals with relationships,” she said.
So far, the response at the school has been better than expected. Not only does the program create an environment where students are kind to one another, but it also gives students an opportunity to share some information about their background, allowing for a more empathetic atmosphere, Cotton said.
She said in one of Lundgren’s presentations, one student who has had some minor problems with bullying other students offered to read the mom and dad bucket-filling statements of classmates who were too choked up to continue.
“It was a gesture that would never have happened, or would have taken much longer to happen, if we hadn’t had this in the classes,” Cotton said. “It’s such a simple concept, but the depth we’ve seen from it has been amazing.”