For Valerie Weisler, repairing the world began close to home.
After suffering bullying in her school, the newly minted New York high school graduate founded the Validation Project, a program that connects struggling kids with mentors who can help them explore and build on their passions
“This is a larger, global issue,” she said. “This kills people.”
Weisler is one of 14 teen philanthropists recognized by the Helen Diller Family Foundation last week for their volunteer work in their communities, awarding each recipient $36,000 to continue pursuing their various community projects — or to help pay for their continuing education.
Other teens were recognized for their work in addressing economic inequalities by teaching low-income children to cook with donated food, working to solve issues like mass incarceration within their own communities through restorative “teen courts,” and throwing birthday parties for disadvantaged children who otherwise would never have one.
Weisler began ninth grade in New York as an entirely different girl. With her parents separating, she went from outgoing and talkative to almost mute.
“It could take me almost 10 minutes to speak,” she told the Forward.
Vulnerable in a new school, she became a target for bullying. Weisler said girls would often wait by her locker and watch as she opened it to a deluge of notes telling her to kill herself.
“Between this and what was happening at home, I didn’t know who I was,” she said. “I branded myself with the identity of the words I was being called in the hallway.”
But Weisler felt lucky to have a support system: her Jewish community.
Since third grade, Weisler has attended a Ramah camp, and she’s been a member of the conservative United Synagogue Youth movement since middle school — even serving on its international tikkun olam board.
“I knew I was lucky enough to go back to a support system,” Weisler said. “It is and was my Jewish community. Others aren’t as lucky.”
It wasn’t until Weisler saw another boy being bullied in the hallway that she realized that there was something she could do to help others who were suffering. She said she approached the boy, checked if he was okay, and told him what she knew he needed to hear: “You matter.”
That moment changed things. Weisler said the boy broke down crying and told her that he had been planning to go home and kill himself that day.
“It woke me up,” Weisler said.
Weisler, who graduated from high school last week, took that experience and created the Validation Project.
The project has grown from a small website where kids would email Weisler about issues with anorexia, foster care, or their transgender identity to an internationally recognized program serving 6,000 teens. The Project has brought teens who love to cook together with five-star chefs, and even has found mentors among Fortune 500 CEOs, she said.
Weisler also worked to create a “kindness curriculum” to replace the anti-bullying curriculums schools were using, which she said delivered the wrong message.
“[It] was teaching kids how to tolerate, and not going beyond that. It only looked at how to act after the damage had been done,” she said. “A kindness curriculum teaches them how to work together as a community and combine their skills.”
With programming in more than 1,000 schools in 105 countries — engaging more than 38,000 young people — Weisler told the Forward that she’s heard reports from schools that bullying has diminished, and that even social cliques were collapsing.
A scholarship from the Ramah Israel Seminar and the Jefferson Awards Foundation allowed her to travel through Poland, Israel and Southeast Asia, where she saw a lack of schools. Without schools, her kindness curriculum couldn’t work, she said. After her trip, she said she sent about 600 emails to the White House and State Department asking for a meeting, which she got in October. Working with the State Department, Weisler is helping build a virtual conference that will help teens around the world talk with their government about the issues affecting them.
As she prepares to study international affairs in the fall at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, Weisler does not plan on leaving the Validation Project behind. The new goal is for her kindness program to reach 2,000 schools by 2017, she said.
Weisler, whose grandmother is a Holocaust survivor, sees the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award as a validation of her work by the Jewish community, which she said has been the foundation for everything in her life.
“I know I am part of a network of incredible changemakers going into the future,” she said.