It started, as many things do, with words of wisdom from a mother.
Those words became the basis for Be the Nice Kid – a one-man organization founded and run by 2000 Saint John’s University graduate Bryan Skavnak. It’s an effort that according to its website “spreads positivity and inspiration to kids, their parents, and their teachers through speaking engagements, class visits, real-life stories, and fun merch.”
Skavnak now visits around 40-to-50 schools a year, and not just in Minnesota.
“It started out with a lot of schools here, but now I’ve been to Canada,” he said. “I’ve been to California a lot. I’ve been to Texas a lot. I go to Boston and Georgia a lot. The area I cover has really spread out as it’s taken off.”
But it all started after his mother passed away in 2011 and he began sharing stories about her with his golf students.
“When my mom died, it was a really big trigger,” said Skavnak, who played golf for the Johnnies and went on to open the Bryan Skavnak Golf Academy for students ages five through high school.
For 25 years, it was based at the Parkers Lake Golf Center in Plymouth, but it is now based out of Edinburgh USA in Brooklyn Park.
“She was my biggest fan and I didn’t know what to do,” he continued. “When something bad happens, sometimes people get into stupid stuff or do something bad. I started writing. I literally started writing stories about my mom. That’s all it was. I sent them out to my students and they liked them. They started asking me for more mom stories. So I wrote one in the fall of 2011 called ‘Be the Nice Kid.’”
It was a passage in that letter – encouraging kids to be nice to one other – that struck a chord with many who read it. They, in turn, began to share it with others on social media.
The passage read as follows:
Some kids are smarter than you. Some kids have cooler clothes than you. Some kids are better at sports than you.
It doesn't matter.
You have your thing too. Be the kid who can get along. Be the kid who is generous. Be the kid who is happy for other people. Be the kid who does the right thing.
Be the nice kid.
“I didn’t think anything of it,” Skavnak recalls. “It was just a letter to a couple hundred golf students. But I started getting people responding back to me saying ‘Hey Bryan. Can I share this with my students.’ I didn’t even know who they were, or where they got the letter from. But that little section took off. It got shared on Facebook and Instagram millions of times. It got to the point where I was like ‘Holy crap, this is insane. I’m getting messages from countries I didn’t know were countries. I’m getting messages from people I didn’t know existed. I don’t know how they know me.’
“They asked to put the quote up on their gym wall or in their library. It was amazing. Then I started to hear from people asking me to come to their school to talk to their students about the same things I teach in golf. They said ‘Don’t talk about the golf part because we don’t really care about that. Just do the other stuff.’”
Things took off from there. Skavnak still runs his golf school and also serves as the head high school girls coach at The Blake School in Hopkins. But in the fall and winter, he’s usually focused on spreading the ‘Be the Nice Kid’ message.
“At first it was kind of the extra,” Skavnak said of his organization. “Now it’s more 50-50. It works perfectly with the seasons. I don’t get requests to go to a lot of schools in the summer, though I do speak to some summer rec programs. But from the spring through September, I’m usually teaching golf full-time. Then, from when school starts in September through the start of April, it’s usually visiting schools.
“It’s mostly elementary schools, though I have a presentation for high schools as well,” he continued. “But when I go to an elementary school, I’ll usually spend the whole day there. I’ll start with a quick assembly for the whole school in the morning. Then I’ll go visit each grade level and tell them more age-specific stories. I go to lunch with the kids, go to recess with them – just sort of hanging out and having some fun.
“Hopefully, they hear this stuff from their teachers as well. But I’m an outsider coming in. And sometimes hearing it from someone new helps. I realize I’m just a part of it. It’s a common message. I’m just someone who can amplify it.”
Johnnies athletic director and head golf coach Bob Alpers said he’s not surprised Skavnak has found a way to spread positivity.
“That’s just who he is,” Alpers said. “He was a really good person and a fun guy for his teammates to be around.”
Skavnak said he just wants to let kids know that being kind to each other doesn’t have to be difficult and can make a big difference.
“I want them to realize that this can be easier than they think,” he said. “That you don’t have to work super-hard at being kind. It’s really just about being aware of other people and their feelings. We all think differently. Sometimes you can be messing around with your friends and teasing and that’s cool. But if you tease someone you don’t know as well, they may take it differently and feel like you’re making fun of them.
“Oftentimes, it’s the simple stuff – like opening a door for someone, using your manners or just listening – that can make someone’s day. Those are the kind of things I’d like them to turn into habits.”
Bryan Slavnak speaks to school groups every winter about how to get along, opposite the time he spends as a golf instructor.