“On the most recent occasion, a young boy ran into the store clearly looking for a place to feel safe. He didn't ask for help directly, but our observant salesperson Eve realised what was going on and helped the boy get to his bike safely through our back door. The group who came after the boy was turned away from the store,” says Kestilä.
When the retailer heard about this and a few other cases of bullying, it got him thinking. “We are not vigilantes and we cannot start patrolling the shopping centre as we have a store to run here. I did realise, however, that there was something we could do: if someone is being bullied or feels bad, they can always run in here to safety.”
At the end of October, Kestilä announced in a Facebook post that his store was a bullying-free zone and a safe place for those being bullied. The retailer has been blown away by the reception, and in recent weeks he has been interviewed by Yle and MTV, among others. This started a chain reaction and now almost a hundred K-stores across Finland have already taken up Kestilä's challenge and made their own pledges.
“We have received huge amounts of feedback through all channels. I have also been sent messages by many people who have experienced systematic bullying in their lives.”
Kestilä emphasises that this is not an empty pledge. The store personnel promise to take the cases seriously and offer a safe place in the store for as long as the situation requires. The store will offer adult help in confronting the bully, if necessary, and the store's personnel can escort the child home, to school or another safe place.
“We have not had to deliver on our promise yet, and we hope that we will never have to. However, we are mentally prepared to do it,” says Kestilä, who says that the entire store personnel have responded positively to the initiative.
Kestilä points out that bullying is wrong and that everyone has a responsibility to intervene in it. Hitting, on the other hand, is no longer bullying. It is assault and a crime. “When I think about my own childhood in the 70s to 80s, I feel that I was brought up by my village. I would like to see a similar kind of community approach now, in terms of both good things and bad things.”
Although the store now puts a stop to the immediate situation, Kestilä admits that he is wondering about the next step. “We are not psychologists, we just sell mincemeat. Professionals are needed to deal with the situation further and carry on where we have left off. Schools, for example, probably do a lot of good work here.”
Ville and Natalia Kestilä have been retailers at the K-Market in Tervakoski in Janakkala, a place best known for the Puuhamaa amusement park, for three and a half years. There is an old saying that the people from around here do things slowly, but this is not true, and the retailers have been delighted by the energetic and welcoming community.
“When we moved here from Helsinki, we thought it would be important to quickly get involved in the local community, also to ensure the store’s success. This was easier than expected: we had hardly even had a chance to get started when I had already received invitations to join two political parties, a male choir, and the Lions Club,” says Ville Kestilä.
He praises Tervakoski for being a nice place to be a retailer. For example, over the last three years or so there has only been one occasion when someone tried to shoplift beer from the store, and on this occasion the perpetrator was caught after 15 minutes. However, being a retailer in a small place also means that when you go for a pizza, you often have the pleasure of taking orders for Christmas ham at the same time.
According to Ville Kestilä, the store’s young customers are happy and well-behaved, and problems are easily solved by talking. “We like to chat about mopeds and cars with the youngsters. I have made an effort to get to know the young people in the area. I know from experience that when you get on well with the youngsters and respect them, they also respect you and the store’s property.
The K-Market Tervapata safe place for those being bullied has put Tervakoski on the map, but the retailer feels that the discussion has stayed on the actual subject. Ville Kestilä encourages everyone to tackle any bullying they encounter in their daily lives. “If we could all just react when we see something bad going on, we might be able to put a stop to these things.”