Were you bullied as a kid? I sure was and it was NO FUN.
And when I first read LETTERS to a BULLIED GIRL by Olivia Gardner, Sarah Buder and Emily Buder, (Harper Collins, 2008) [hat tip L.Sharkey] it immediately brought me back to my childhood. All of a sudden I was catapulted back to my 6th grade class - head on my desk - crying because the kids were teasing – or as we used to say back then - ranking on me. You see at that time, my parents had a lot of kids and not a lot of money, so my siblings and I were easy targets for the bullies’ taunts – for years. And like those who were bullied and wrote to Olivia, they/we all carry those scars into adult life.
Here’s my recent interview with Sarah and Emily Buder – two sisters whose determination and compassion changed one girl’s life forever.
At what point did both of you decide – enough is enough – we need to do something about this bullying?
Initially, the idea for the letter writing campaign came after we read an article about Olivia in the local newspaper. The article chronicled Olivia’s struggle with bullying, going into detail about how Olivia had switched schools twice to try to escape the wrath of her fellow students. Originally, Olivia had been a target for bullying due to her epileptic condition, but soon the pack mentality spun out of control and Olivia’s peers were finding more and more ridiculous reasons to bully her. Upon reading the article, we were beyond shocked. We couldn’t imagine the pain that Olivia must be going through, and the way Olivia’s peers were treating her seemed unheard of.
In response to reading the article, a spark ignited between Sarah and me – we both recognized that there was something that had to be done about this situation. For so many years we had lived our lives watching things happen around us that shouldn’t happen at all and hesitating to make a move to stop them. It seemed like the right time to change this.
We decided that writing a letter to Olivia would be the best mode of communication, as some of her bullying had been done on cyberspace and we didn’t want Olivia to mistake our letter for something else. Also, letter writing is a lot more personal than email writing. We each wrote Olivia a two-page letter expressing our concern for her and our hope for a solution to the problems that her peers had been putting her through. We each offered personal advice, anecdotes, and reassurance that there were people in the world who knew that what was happening to her was wrong and wanted to do something about it.
About a week after we sent our letters, Olivia’s mother contacted us with uplifting news. Olivia’s morale had changed dramatically in response to our letters. She felt as if she wasn’t alone, and it comforted her to know that people were thinking about her well-being.
With such a positive response, we decided to encourage our own friends and family to write letters to Olivia. Within our school community, we publicized Olivia’s plight and told our classmates and teachers that writing a letter to Olivia would make a tremendous difference in her ability to cope with the situation at hand. We collected about a hundred letters and sent them in a batch to Olivia.
Somewhere along the way, a local newspaper caught wind of the community project that we were spearheading. A journalist wanted to publish an article about our effort to help Olivia, and we agreed to participate in the hope that it would help publicize the project. Indeed, it did! Hundreds of letters came pouring in from surrounding areas.
About a month later, the newspaper that had originally published an article about Olivia put our project on the front page. Thousands of letters from all over the country and even the world flooded into Olivia’s mailbox, each offering a unique perspective on courage and compassion. Olivia was ecstatic!
A.B. What I like about the letter writing campaign is that it’s traditional in scope, yet a powerful way of showing support. Why and who decided on a letter-writing campaign to help Olivia?
We wanted to do something meaningful to support her, so we thought that having the community write Olivia encouraging letters might help to lift her spirits. The article said that Olivia had lost trust in people so we also hoped that receiving kind and compassionate letters would help her see beyond her situation and realize that there are SO many great people in the world. Another reason we thought letters would help is that Olivia had to resort to being home schooled to avoid the bullying, and we thought she was feeling very isolated, so the letters would increase her connection to the outside world.
A.B. Now that you two are the "go-to girls" for anti-bullying, how has this changed your relationship with other teenagers? What has been the reaction from your peers?
We have received the most overwhelmingly positive response from our peers and from strangers across the country. Some other teens have told us our letter writing campaign has inspired them to go out and make positive changes in their communities.
We have learned how many amazing people there are in the world who are ready and willing to help others.
We learned how generous people can be: thousands of people took the time out of their day to support another human being they didn’t even know and many people even sent personal gifts to Olivia such as their hand drawn art work, gift certificates, offers for tutoring, photographs from their trips abroad, pictures of them selves with their pets, hand-made jewelry and books about bullying. One contractor offered to build Olivia a tree-house in her backyard, and a group of men who used to play in a band sent her an acoustic guitar!
One of the biggest things that we learned from doing this project is how rewarding it is to take action against injustice and that you can make more of a difference than you think you are capable of. We hope that we are able to convey that message to others through the book.
A.B. Which of the letters to Olivia struck you the hardest?
Along the way, there have definitely been a few surprising letters. The letter that sticks out most prominently in my mind is one from the mother of a girl from Texas. In the letter, the mother tells the story of her daughter, Corinne, who was bullied terribly throughout her middle school years. Corinne eventually became so depressed from the effects of bullying that she committed suicide before she even entered high school. This story really shook me up because everything was eerily similar to Olivia’s, save for the tragic ending. Also, I couldn’t help but wonder: If Corinne had been the recipient of letters from a letter writing campaign, would she still have felt so alone that she was driven to commit suicide? Or would the campaign have given her the courage to pick up the pieces and work on healing herself to save her own life?
I guess more than anything this story was a wake-up call for how serious the problem of bullying really is. It can drive a person to doubt him or herself so terribly that they have no faith in their future. Sarah and I have been corresponding with Corinne’s mother, who is extremely supportive of the letter writing campaign. She has offered to help us out with any future endeavors as a tribute to her daughter’s memory and in the hope that no one else will have to experience a fate like her daughter.
Another touching letter we received was from a woman who was paralyzed from the neck down. In her letter, she gave Olivia advice on perseverance and maintaining the vigor for what life always has to offer. This woman’s outlook on life was extremely admirable, because although it would seem as if she was hindered in her ability to experience life fully, she actually claimed that her life was incredibly rich and meaningful. Along with the letter, the woman sent a postcard with a beautiful painting that she had created using only her teeth to hold the paintbrush. The woman’s message was that no matter how many obstacles you encounter, and no matter how many times it seems as if life is trying to get you down, never surrender. Always stay true to yourself and what you value most.
Among the thousands of letters Olivia received in response to this letter writing campaign, almost every single one was unique and beautiful in and of itself. The letters have taught me so many invaluable lessons about life and the values one should keep while living it. Above all, however, I hope the letters restored Olivia’s faith in humankind. Contrary to what she was seeing in the microcosm of her middle schools, there are millions of people in the world who are good-hearted and genuinely care about the well-being of others. This letter writing campaign was definitely a confirmation of that for me. For every mean-spirited person in the world, there are so many other benevolent ones. The trick is to remember this, and to try to surround yourself with people who will reaffirm your belief in the inherent good of people.
A.B. What would be your top 5 ways to avoid bullies? Or, are there ways to avoid them?
It is really important to DO SOMETHING to help a person being bullied and not just stand there and observe it or walk away and ignore it!!! The person who is being bullied needs help and you can do so much to help them. There are many possibilities to take action: 1) Tell the bullies how mean they are being and tell them to stop bothering the person, 2) Go with the target of the bullies (as a witness) to tell an adult, such as the school principal, a school counselor, a teacher, a parent, who will help prevent another incident, 3) support the bullied person with reassuring words and advise them NOT to ignore bullying but to stand up for themselves and always tell an adult if it happens again, 4) suggest that the bullied child talk to someone they trust about their feelings and not to hold the hurt inside. 5) Make an effort to include those who have been exclude. There is power in numbers!
A.B. How is Olivia doing now?
Getting to know Olivia was probably the most rewarding part of this project. She is a nice, smart, talented girl who will be our friend for life. We met for the first time three months into the project to talk to middle school girls at an after-school program about bullying. It was the first time she went out in public and we were so surprised at how open and articulate she was! She is still struggling with the effects of bullying, because it is not easy to completely erase the damage her tormentors inflicted on her.