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It’s the centerpiece of countless Hollywood comedies, but adolescent social isolation is no laughing matter. Many kids are marred irreparably by the all too familiar feelings of dread and desperation which were their only companions in classrooms, hallways and the school cafeteria. Others transcend the heartbreak and loneliness, turning it into triumph.
Lili Rachel Smith was one of those others.
A Little Girl Inspires A Movement
Born with Apert Syndrome, a genetic disorder which affects the look of facial features and fingers, Smith knew all too well the experience of being unpopular and invisible to others in middle school. Through grit, will and the power of her astonishing personality and transcendent charm, Smith overcame adolescent social isolation to become just like every other kid by the time she entered high school.
But after her unexpected death, Smith left behind a powerful legacy. Committed to keeping Smith’s legacy alive her parents, Laura Talmus and Ace Smith, founded Beyond Differences, an organization largely run by kids, passionate about eradicating social isolation where it hurts the most: in school.
A Movement Spearheaded By Teens
The heart and soul of Beyond Differences is its 43-member Teen Board of Directors. As high school students from all over the Bay Area, the board goes into middle schools throughout Northern California to tell Lili’s story and to talk about social isolation in all its forms.
A teen board member for almost two years, Edyn Tess Jensen is a ninth-grader at Mill Valley’s Tamalpais High School. Jensen, along with her colleagues, create Beyond Differences initiatives like the “I’M IN” pledge that focuses on being kind online and not posting anonymously. They’re also responsible for No One Eats Alone, a lunchtime program for middle school kids that takes place in the cafeteria.
“In addition to going to middle schools on a regular basis to do presentations on how to be more inclusive and to teach what social isolation looks like, No One Eats Alone addresses, what for many, is the longest hour of the day. The program encourages kids to sit with and interact with other students they don’t know. Beyond Differences provides game ideas and conversation-starters for schools along with a curriculum and purple backpack they send free of charge. In February 2015, we reached 700 schools and 400,000 kids with this program,” explains Jensen, who knew Lili personally and was motivated by her life.
“Because I knew Lili ever since I was very little, I wanted to help other kids who might feel the way she did,” Jensen goes on. “It wasn’t until Lili passed away that I found out she was socially isolated in middle school. She was five years older than me and I didn’t notice any differences when I saw her. She was just Lili. When I learned the mission of Beyond Differences was to address social isolation and change the culture in middle school to be more inclusive, I knew I wanted to be part of it and help kids understand the issue and take action. So when I was old enough to join the Teen Board, I did.”
Jensen and her teen colleagues are not alone in their quest. Joining the board are an army of educators, school administrators and parents, fighting this issue head-on and bringing Lili’s face to the issue of isolation. The powerful message they bring is a game-changer.
The Next Generation Of Leaders
Beyond Differences enlists 140 middle school kids to be part of the Leadership Academy Training Program. The organization provides training, retreats and public speaking support geared toward helping the LATP kids become ambassadors. As such, they are taught to be able to bring the mission of eradicating social isolation into middle schools every day.
The middle school students also get involved in all of the organization’s major initiatives. The LATP members are from schools in Oakland, Marin County and the Castro Valley. Many, moved by the work and their part in it, go on to join the Teen Board.
Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.