Written by Karen Mahoney, Special to your Catholic HeraldThursday, 16 May 2013 08:30In 2006, Jean Davidson received the worst news any grandparent can imagine. Her sandy-haired, blue-eyed, 4-year-old grandson, Ryder, drowned in a water-filled ditch. He had been playing with a couple of neighborhood boys, one was also 4 and another was 8. Both Ryder and the other 4-year-old fell into the water.
Instead of calling for help, the 8-year-old boy became afraid and ran home. If he would have yelled for help, Ryder’s father could have saved both boys because he was close enough to have heard the call.
“My son was only able to save the other 4-year-old because he did not know that his own son was in the water, too,” said Davidson, granddaughter of the founder of Harley-Davidson and resident of Wauwatosa. “The other boy was just so scared and didn’t know what to do. I have never blamed him, but I wanted to find a way to help others so this wouldn’t happen again.”
Through her research with law enforcement agencies, she was shocked to learn that the circumstances surrounding Ryder’s death were not uncommon – in fact, it happens often. Since she was a former schoolteacher, and had written several books, Davidson knew that God was calling her to make a difference the one way she knew how, through her writing.
Working through her grief, Davidson, 75, spent the next few months developing the Yell and Tell Program, a curriculum to teach children what to do when they see a dangerous situation by taking action and warning someone about what is happening.
“Little kids often run and hide
when they get scared because they don’t want to get yelled at by their parents,” said Davidson, who donates all of her time for the program. “Inner city kids are more afraid of getting beaten or called a snitch if they tell on their friends.
But I want them to know that it is OK to yell and tell if they see something dangerous.”
Since its inception in 2007, more than 100 children have been recognized as heroes for yelling and telling and saving the lives of others. Late last year, Davidson was in Lake Geneva at St. Francis de Sales School where she taught the Yell and Tell program geared for kindergarten through fifth-graders, and presented awards to two heroes.
When gunman Wade Page appeared at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek last August and started shooting, the St. Francis de Sales students, Abhay Singh and his sister, Amanat, ran inside to tell the adults about the situation. While six people died in the shooting, Abhay and Amanat are credited with saving the lives of many more.
“Because of those two little kids, the Oak Creek Police Department wants to teach the program to school children, too,” said Davidson. “Every time I hear that another child told an adult and saved a life, or saved someone from a dangerous situation, it makes me so happy. I know that Ryder is living on in each of these children and through this program.”
Davidson’s Yell and Tell Program is used throughout the United States, and has been translated into Hungarian and Spanish and will be presented in Honduras. Until recently, Davidson has taught the program to schools by herself, but since it has grown in popularity, other volunteers help teach.
“I travel so much and recently realized that I don’t need to be teaching the program; I can teach others how to keep it going,” she said. “I can’t be everywhere and I could die tomorrow, so my new goal is that I don’t have to be out there all the time – others can do this. It is hard to give up though as there is a little part of me that wants to do it – it is so much a part of me and Ryder.”
While the program is offered to all schools, Davidson has found the most enthusiasm from Catholic and other parochial schools where she has direct contact with the principal.
“I usually will work with the principal and train the staff in the program, or I will send my volunteers, who are all retired school teachers, to work with them,” she said.
Despite the loss of her grandson, Davidson was never angry with God for the death of Ryder. In fact, she still considers him her best friend.
“I talk to God all the time,” she said. “I lost my little brother when I was 8 and my mom went into depression. I loved the outdoors and made God my best friend and companion. I would sit on the hillside and talk to him. I have done that my whole life, and with my writings. I used to journal letters to God.”
However, while God wasn’t the target of her anger, she was angry. As an outdoor enthusiast, Davidson is a lifelong swimmer, and has fond memories of swimming with dolphins and sea turtles, and for the water to take her grandson, it felt like the ultimate betrayal.
“It took me a long time to not be angry at the river because I felt like the water double crossed me,” she explained. “I knew that God doesn’t do things like that. He doesn’t kill children. Accidents happen and something good can come out of an accident, and I know that this program has helped a lot of people and it makes me so happy.”
Davidson is a devout Christian and visits various places of worship when she travels.
“I travel so much that I never had time to join a church,” she explained. “But I stay in people’s homes when I travel and go to whatever church they go to. I grew up Congregational, but I feel it is important to practice wherever. I want us all to get along, and the basics are similar, so why argue? We all need to band together and find people who are teaching the principals of kindness, compassion and somehow link all of us together.”
Davidson’s program includes awareness about water, fire, poison, guns and child enticement. She has also written a program on bullying to address the epidemic of children harmed in this manner.
“I wasn’t going to touch on this because there is so much out there, but the Oak Creek Police Department asked that we have one on this subject,” she said. “I am just happy that I can be of help. It makes me feel wonderful and I thank Ryder every time we save a life. I always tell him, ‘Look, there is another little kid’s parents who aren’t going to be so sad.’”