Bryan Skavnak turned golf professional right out of college in 2000. But the Brooklyn Park father of two tweens quickly realized competition wasn't his thing. Kindness was.
Now he's taking lessons learned on the course into the classroom.
Skavnak, 43, is founder of Be the Nice Kid, a business venture that engages students in storytelling and activities designed to build character, courage and compassion. He meets kids where they are, figuratively, and literally, in assemblies, lunchrooms — even during recess. He shares stories of his own childhood as a quiet kid who got picked on occasionally and of his realization after decades of playing golf that there will always be people who are better, smarter, cooler.
But everybody can be patient. Honest. Nice.
While Be The Nice Kid launched about 10 years ago, Skavnak said his message is more urgent than ever, due to the pandemic and the isolation it's created.
"Kids haven't had a normal school year in one-and-a-half years," he said. "It's still not normal yet. A lot of kids just don't know how to interact. We talk a lot about that. You've got to think about other people. We talk a lot about patience — you're not going to get this right right away."
Skavnak graduated from St. John's University in 2000 and turned golf pro that fall. The author of "Happy Golf Starts Here" also began teaching golf to kids through a rec program in Plymouth, which he's still doing in the summer.
The turning point for Skavnak was 2011, when his mother died from lymphoma. "All of a sudden, there were things way more important than golf," he said.
That fall, as his summer golf students returned to school, he penned a note to them: "Yes, we had fun this summer but now you're going back to school. Be the nice kid through everything."
He posted a longer quote on his website (bethenicekid.com) sharing that sentiment and didn't think anything of it. But the quote "exploded" on Facebook, he said. Suddenly, his words were on posters hanging in thousands of school gyms and classrooms.
"It was weird," Skavnak said. "This letter just kind of started the be-the-nice-kid revolution."
After a COVID pandemic hiatus in 2020, Skavnak held 120 virtual assemblies last spring. He's now back traveling to schools across Minnesota and the country, from California to Texas to Massachusetts. In recent weeks, he was in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
He still wears a mask in many settings, only taking it off to speak.
He brings both his free and paid talks to students in kindergarten through middle school, modifying his content to their varying attention spans. One overall favorite story, though, is "how I lost to a chicken in tic tac toe," he said. "That's the one the kids always remember."
File that one under lessons in humility.
Donna Spingler, a third-grade teacher in Norristown, Pa., said Skavnak "was just what we needed as we kicked off our schoolwide Kindness Campaign for the 2021-2022 school year."
She said she spotted Skavnak's "Be the Nice Kid" poem on social media a few years ago and now recites it with her students every morning. During his visit to the school in September, Skavnak brought his message to students from pre-K to 8th grade, she said, "connecting with all of them."
More than a month later, her students still remember his lessons — "things such as, say hi, give a compliment, don't be a sore loser, include everyone always and try to say kind things every day.
"He is a very kind person," Spingler said, "so people can see that he is what he speaks."
An exciting new project for Skavnak is a book collaboration with Twin Cities illustrator and mixed media artist Wendy Kieffer Shragg; the two were introduced through a mutual friend.
Titled "Be Nice. The End: Simple Wisdom of the Playground Kids," the coffee table book (meettheplayground kids.com) features Shragg's images of children coupled with Skavnak's words about kindness, acceptance, courage, perseverance and more.
Shragg calls the merging of her images with his words "a perfect match." Like Skavnak, her work reflects the complexities, and sometimes pain, of growing up.
"They're not all happy, smiling," she said of her illustrations. "Most have a soulful feel to them. That's the beauty of them. There's something deeper. They're not just cute kids on a playground."
She shares Skavnak's sense of urgency in reaching kids as they return to a still-uncertain school year.
"This is information especially important to be hearing now," she said. "Do we even remember how to treat each other? How do we retrain ourselves in a way that feels better than before?
"We hope this book can help guide the way."
Skavnak, too, is hopeful that his be-kind message is resonating.
"I've seen it. I've seen kids standing up and being upstanders and even better kids. They're more tolerant, more patient.
They're even, he said, "more willing to wait in line."
Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350