With his young family, thriving political career and law firm Zirkin & Schmerling, State Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin (D-11th) has plenty to keep him busy.
But Zirkin recently started a brand new project. A fixture on the Annapolis political scene since 1999 and the father of two daughters, Zirkin, 47, is a founding partner of Chesapeake Philanthropy Consulting. The new firm consults with professional athletes about their philanthropic goals and community activism in tandem with corporations and foundations.
“I started this firm to make a difference in the lives of kids,” he said. “It combines two of the things I love — community and sports.”
Working with one of his first clients, the Bradley & Nikki Bozeman Foundation, the goal is to prevent school bullying and make a difference in the lives of at-risk children and families. According to Baltimore County Public Schools, reported incidents of bullying and harassment skyrocketed from 581 four years ago to 901 in 2017.
Zirkin dropped by New Town Elementary School in Owings Mills on Oct. 29 accompanied by Baltimore Ravens center Bradley Bozeman and his fiancée, Nikki Hegstetter. Their foundation focuses on the perils and prevention of childhood bullying.
Zirkin, Bozeman and Hegstetter also recently spoke to students at Fort Garrison, Winand and Woodholme elementary schools, as well as at Pikesville High.
In addition to local schools, Chesapeake Philanthropy is arranging for Bozeman and Hegstetter to speak at anti-bullying conferences throughout Maryland and other states, as well as communicating their message via social media.
“When I grew up, I got a passion for talking to kids about bullying and treating each other with respect,” said Bozeman, 23, a native of Roanoke, Ala.
Zirkin, who is known for his frequent and popular addresses to students at local schools, is arranging for Bozeman and Hegstetter to talk with children in Baltimore area elementary, middle and high schools about bullying and self-empowerment.
“It’s really exciting when you see how kids respond to Bradley and Nikki,” Zirkin said.
Bozeman, who is six-foot five and weighs 317 pounds, told the several hundred students gathered at the assembly at New Town that he was once considered fairly small for his age.
“I used to be short and fat,” he said. “Kids called me all kinds of mean names. But God put us here for a reason, so it’s OK to be different. Just do what you love to do.”
Hegstetter, who is six-foot-one and a former college women’s basketball player, told the students that she was also bullied as a child.
“I was always tall for my age,” said Hegstetter, 25, a native of Kennesaw, Ga. “When I was in fifth grade, I was taller than all the boys, and I was taller than the male teachers, too. So every day, on the bus, to and from school, they chanted, ‘Gigantor, Gigantor, Gigantor!’ To get out of both bus rides, I played basketball, with my mom’s help arriving early for practice before school and staying late for after-school practice.”
Still, she said the bullying from students continued, particularly online.
“Girls would message me on Facebook, ‘You’re only doing [basketball] for attention. No one wants to hang out with you,’” Hegstetter said. “What I learned is you need to find your outlet, whatever you love. Strive to be yourself, strive to be the best person who gives back more than others. Set a higher standard for yourself than you’ve ever thought possible. If your goals are not scary, they are not high enough. … Make this earth a better place.”
One student at the assembly asked Hegstetter, “If your bullies were here now, what would you say to them?” She responded, “That’s one of the very best questions I’ve been asked. I’d say, ‘I hope you’ve met your goals. I hope you’ve found what you’re looking for.’ I’d kill them with kindness.”
Another student asked, referring to her bullies, “Why didn’t you [physically] hurt them?” Hegstetter said, “I concerned myself with being a better basketball player. I also put myself into playing the clarinet and cooking.”
Bozeman advised students to always try to take the high road and take pride in themselves. “Know in your heart what and who you are,” he said. “You can also talk about being bullied with anyone you trust. I talked with my parents. Nikki talked with her sister.”
Bozeman and Hegstetter concluded the 30-minute talk by going through the audience and doling out high-fives and words of encouragement.
One fifth-grade student, K. Rollins, said he thoroughly enjoyed their visit. “They inspired me to really reach my goals,” he said. “Right now, I want to get all A’s and make more friends. Then, I want to become a veterinarian, be super-rich and live in a mansion.”
Said his fellow fifth grader, K. Patel: “It’s important to do what makes you happy. Believe in yourself and do whatever you want. It doesn’t matter what they say.”
New Town Principal Kriscine G. Coston said she greatly appreciated the visit from Zirkin, Bozeman and Hegstetter, and felt it made a profound impact on the youngsters.
“It’s very motivational and appropriate for these elementary school students to hear from Bradley Bozeman and Nikki Hegstetter,” she said. “It gives them hope.”
Peter Arnold is an Olney, Md.-based freelance writer.