When Jeanine McMillan’s son, Scott was just 5 years old, she thought the bullying he was experiencing was “harmless” at first. The mother from Otisville, Michigan noticed that some of the other kids had started teasing Scott, but he didn’t say or do anything in response. Through kindergarten, the boy’s introverted personality and tendency to withdraw from the bullying led him to be labeled as a “loner” by his peers. From there, the bullying only got worse.
By third grade at a private school in Detroit, McMillan explains that the bullying had escalated and become more physical and dangerous in nature. Scott told her his classmates would often hand him notes on the playground.
“One note that I found said if he ever told he was being teased, they would stab him to death with knitting needles,” she remembers.
After addressing the bullying with school officials, McMillan was assured that the incidents were “only teasing.” However, after her son began experiencing night terrors, she was horrified to discover how far the “teasing” had gone.
Her son revealed that a month prior, he had been locked in gym closet for an entire day with no food, water, or bathroom access. Worse, no one had noticed until the end of the day. The school had never even notified McMillan of the incident. The distressed parents went back to the school, filed police charges, booked their son with a social worker, and transferred schools. Unfortunately, the bullying only continued.
One day on the playground, the bullies decided to try a new “game” with Scott where they held him down next to the slide and took turns jumping on top of him. The final jumper, a female classmate, landed directly on Scott’s leg and broke it. McMillan and her husband then made the decision to homeschool their son, but around the age of 16, he began experiencing problems and became very withdrawn.
She remembers one night as she was going to say goodnight to her son, she was hit with the “strongest sense” that she needed to really talk with him. That night her son confessed that he preferred boys and felt like he didn’t want to live anymore.
“I listened, holding back the tears and pain I felt for this child of mine,” McMillan says. “All my love being pierced by the words that the kids had put on him for so many years; all the hurt he felt.”
After that night, McMillan was compelled to do something for not only her son, but for any child going through the same thing. Unfortunately, the demands of life and work overwhelmed her. It wasn’t until 2012, when she was injured and ended up in traction after several surgeries, that she was inspired to come up with a marketing plan for a new business that would give back to anti-bullying initiatives within the community.
Combining her love of baking and health, McMillan came up with an idea for an organic snack company and developed Ned’s Pretzels, a line of specialty pretzels that included the instantly popular Zesty Parmesan (thanks to her husband), Chocolate Covered Peanut Butter Buddy Bits, and Butter Pretzel varieties.
Named after her husband Kevin (AKA “Ned”), McMillan truly made Ned’s Pretzels a family affair. Her sister came on to manage bookkeeping, while Scott managed the website, marketing, photography, creative packaging, and promotions. Her son acting as a vital team member empowered him with confidence that he never had before. McMillan finally felt like she was fighting back against the bullying that had ruled their lives for so long.
“The kid that felt like an outcast, now felt like he had a purpose,” she explains. “He loved it.”
Not only are Ned’s Pretzels delicious, but McMillan explains that they have real purpose because they are shaped like a heart.
“When we give and share from our heart, we can all make a positive difference in this world,” she says. “Literally, we put our heart into making these pretzels. We slow roast them for two hours, running from oven to oven and stirring them every 15 minutes. It is a labor of love!”
To date, Ned’s Pretzels, a completely Michigan-based business, has donated over $4K to different anti-bullying programs and organizations dedicated to children’s causes, including the Advocacy Centers of Lapeer, Genesee, Oakland, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, and Macomb counties, Out of the Darkness, The Bullycide Project, and Kids Matter.
Scott, now 28, is a full-time employee with Apple but still helps with the family business. He single-handedly developed a fundraising program for schools and groups to sell Ned’s Pretzels and helps raise money for anti-bullying initiatives. McMillan knows that the work they have done through simple pretzels is about so much more than a snack — it’s about changing lives.
She shares the story of one young girl who was contemplating suicide until she saw a Ned’s Pretzels flyer and called her. The two were able to connect and talk for a long time. They left hugging, and for the first time, this girl’s future was filled with hope instead of darkness.
“That, to me, is worth every day doing what I do and knowing that Scott’s suffering was not in vain,” says McMillan. “My hope for the future of these kids is that they will treat each other the way they want to be treated — with peace, love and respect. Until that day comes, we all have work to do. Not only children, but adults. Our words matter. Our actions matter. If it is not positive and uplifting, it does not need to be said. I have always told [my kids to] ‘be the light in someone’s darkness.'”
Or the pretzel. Either way, sometimes the smallest things make the biggest difference.