The Teen Heroes column is sponsored by the Helen Diller Family Foundation. To learn more about the foundation’s $36,000 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, visit http://dillerteenawards.org.
(JTA) — For Val Weisler freshman year of high school was marred by tears and unhappiness as classmates bullied her daily for being shy and withdrawn.
“I was a different person and I didn’t feel comfortable,” said Weisler, now a 16-year-old junior at Clarkstown High School South in West Nyack, N.Y. “I was hiding myself and hating myself. I didn’t feel welcomed.”
She soon realized, however, that “there were so many other teenagers who had bigger problems than me.”
Weisler set about to create a community of support for teens experiencing bullying. In January 2013, with money that she had saved from babysitting, she launched a website, The Validation Project. The site encourages teens to become “Validators” by matching them with a mentor to learn a set of specific skills that can then be applied to local community service. In addition, the teens can work with others in the project’s network to spread positive messages through social media or brainstorm together to develop and implement social action campaigns. To date, Weisler said there are more than 5,550 teenagers and 2,000 mentors with chapters in all 50 states and in 100 countries involved with the project. They have also raised a collective $25,000 in goods and services for people in need, she added.
Future plans for The Validation Project, Weisler said, include organizing an international conference for teens to do community service together and expanding the organization to reach out to teens in low-income communities.
But perhaps one of the biggest benefits of The Validation Project was the personal impact that it had on Weisler. By directing her energies on the Project, she was able to overcome her own experience with bullying.
“The more I reached out [to others], the more confidence I had to be a happy person,” Weisler said. “It saved me and I got out of my shell. It took awhile, but if not for [The Validation Project], I would still be that shy girl in the hallway.”
For her work on The Validation Project, last year she won the National Jefferson Award for Peace and Justice from the Jefferson Awards Foundation, an organization that recognizes individuals of all ages engaged in outstanding public service.
“My age is anything but a disadvantage,” said Weisler. “If you want to help others, embrace who you are, don’t change who you are to make a difference.”
JTA recently spoke to her about what makes a hero, her personal role model and the latest book she read for pleasure.
What do you think are the important qualities of a hero?
Belief in yourself and confidence, for sure. The ability to not just make a difference but to be a leader. You have to be able to bring up others and also have a little fun.
Can you share with us a meaningful Jewish experience that you’ve had?
I’ve had so many with [United Synagogue Youth]. Recently, I was at USY’s International Convention in Atlanta and we went to entertain kids from low-income families to tell them the Hanukkah story. To be able to see Judaism experienced through a little kid’s eye, to teach these kids and to be there with my Jewish peers was a very meaningful experience.
If you could have lunch or coffee with anyone and tell them about The Validation Project, who would it be?
Ellen DeGeneres. She is my absolute role model. She is really inspiring. Just to say “thank you” to her would be a amazing.
What do you think you want to be when you grow up?
I want to be a broadcast journalist and go to places where people aren’t reporting the news. My dream is to be an undercover news reporter for “Good Morning America” or “The Today Show.”
What’s the latest book you’ve read for pleasure?
I just finished reading “The Promise of a Pencil” by Adam Braun. I get to meet him in April and talk about The Validation Project.
What kind of things do you like to do for fun?
I like to dance, though I’m very bad at it. I hang out with my dog, and I go to the kosher deli with my friend, Liz.
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