A large group of students were overflowing with energy and started a "Go Vikings" chant in anticipation of the featured event, an anti-bullying rally put on as part of the 2017 Polaris Vikings Winterfest.
PRIOR LAKE, Minn. –Judging by the volume level inside the Westwood Elementary gymnasium on Friday, you'd never guess it was the offseason.
Students were overflowing with energy on a 60-degree February day, and the large group started a "Go Vikings" chant in anticipation of the featured event, an anti-bullying rally put on as part of the 2017 Polaris Vikings Winterfest.
The youth, many of them wearing Vikings purple, remained engaged throughout an interactive program entitled "Viktor's Quest to Stop Bullying." Minnesota Vikings Cheerleader Hannah emceed the program, with the help of Viktor the Viking, of course.
The curriculum used the S.T.O.P. acronym – that stands for Stand up, Take action, Open up and Protect yourself – to raise awareness about and promote action against bullying in schools.
Hannah has led the program at a number of elementary schools and said it's a message she feels strongly about endorsing.
"Bullying is a cause that is near and dear to my heart," Hannah said. "You hear stories consistently about kids being affected by bullying, and it's so difficult. We need to start being more kind to each other, and that starts in elementary school.
"If I can make a difference in even one student's life, I consider myself the luckiest person," Hannah continued. "I am so blessed to be able to reach out to elementary students about a cause that is important."
An instructional video featured a variety of scenarios in addition to messages from Minnesota Vikings Cheerleaders, "Voice of the Vikings" Paul Allen and Vikings players Adam Thielen and Danielle Hunter.
Westwood Elementary Principal Karen Zwolenski said she was grateful to have the Vikings host such a meaningful – and fun – program to reinforce the school's already-existing message against bullying.
"It gives the kids a chance to connect with their favorite team and a great topic for us to cover with adults that the kids look up to," Zwolenski said. "When kids see examples up on a screen and see their idols or the people they admire standing up to what's wrong in the world, that really resonates with them. They own that, and hopefully they apply it."
The students learned about four different types of bullying – verbal, social, physical and cyber – and how to appropriately respond should they become a bystander or victim of bullying themselves.
At the end of the rally, the youth were treated to a surprise when four Vikings players entered the gymnasium. Charles Johnson, Captain Munnerlyn, Zach Line and C.J. Ham were given a hearty welcome as they introduced themselves before a brief Q&A session with the group.
Ham said the anti-bullying campaign is personally significant to him for a number of reasons.
"I was bullied growing up because of my speech impediment, so this is really close to my heart," Ham said. "Kids need to know that they should embrace their differences and not let that define them.
"I think this was an awesome event, and having them see us just gives them more confidence," Ham added.
The 2016 season marked a year of firsts for Ham, who was not only a rookie running back for the Vikings but also, along with his wife Stephanie, welcomed his first child. Ham said that having a daughter has increased even more the value of a message of kindness.
"I see all these kids, and every time I see a little girl, I imagine my little girl at that same age," Ham said. "It's really nice to see kids growing up, [hearing these messages] and looking up to us."