August 1, 2013
Originally published in Milton Villager magazine
By Tania MacWilliam
Recent research from the Journal of Adolescent Health shows that bullying is a potential risk factor for adolescent depression and suicide for both the bullied and the bully.
A Milton-based, youth-led grassroots anti-bullying movement wants to make a difference by raising awareness about the rate and impact of bullying.
On July 6, Milton Stands Strong Against Bullying (MSSAB) hosted an event at the Milton Fair Grounds to raise awareness of crisis resources and funds for suicide prevention training.
“[We] hope to raise awareness of bullying to prevent … children from falling victim,” said Dalton Cole, 17-year-old co-founder of MSSAB, “and [ultimately] reduce future [instances of] suicide.”
Another goal of the event was to affirm MSSAB’s message that its members will no longer be bystanders.
“We won’t tolerate [bullying] anymore,” said Yianni Kioussis, the other 17-year-old co-founder of MSSAB. “I think kids all over the community are well aware of that now.”
A committee of adult volunteers, led by youth advocate Terri Naccarato, worked tirelessly to help organize the event. The youths approached Naccarato to help out after learning of her volunteer work with the Deck Youth Centre.
Since she believes in empowering youths by guiding their passions, she happily obliged. “I feel it’s important to listen to our kids,” said Naccarato. “When they reach out to help each other, that is big and needs to be heard.”
The event featured a martial arts demonstration by the Milton Tsunami of the Academy of Martial Arts (AMA), musical performances by local youths, and guest speakers, with Mayor Gord Krantz and MP Lisa Raitt making the opening remarks.
Following Krantz’s and Raitt’s comments was an address by Milton’s own Olympic aerial skier, Travis Gerrits. He shared how it was important for him to attend the event as a way of reciprocating the support he received from the community during his journey to the Olympics.
Gerrits later spent time posing for photographs and signing autographs. He then invited attendees to sign a Canadian flag, which he plans to bring with him to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Nelson the Giant story time, face painting, and a bouncy castle entertained children while the audience listened to musical performances and speeches.
Among speech topics were mental self-defense and the bystander effect, shared by Julie Creighton and Carrie Percival of AMA.
Another topic discussed was bullying in the LGBT community. Michelle Emson, a transformational coach and inspirational speaker, shared her personal journey from self-bullying to self-acceptance.
Speeches concluded with a keynote address called “Love Your Vibe.” Elvira Hopper, an author, life coach, and inspirational speaker, shared how youths could use the lessons shared in “Love Your Vibe” to self-protect from the emotional trauma that so often results from bullying.
Money raised at the event will fund the group’s anti-bullying initiatives, with a portion donated to established community resources such as the Deck Youth Centre and the Reach Out Centre for Kids.
The overarching goal of the event was to let youths know that there are caring people in the community, including those on the MSSAB team.
“We want to let everyone know they’re not alone,” said Cole “We stand here for them.”
A Story of Survival
Sixteen-year-old Milton resident Lauren Saelzer courageously shared her bullying survival story as the sole youth speaker at the event.
Saelzer told listeners her tale of being bullied, how she found the inner strength to overcome her darkest moments, and how she finally chose self-love over self-harm.
Saelzer recounted the moment she took control of her life back from the clutches of darkness. After what seemed like an eternity of torment, she reached her breaking point. She said she was sitting alone one day when she decided enough was enough.
“There was a voice inside my head that said I have to let go,” she said in an interview with the Milton Villager. “I don’t know what it was, but I knew I couldn’t harm myself any longer.”
Saelzer confessed that getting through the pain wasn’t easy and that it didn’t go away overnight. “But once you finally [realize] that you’re worth it and that you can’t let those bullies define who you are, then you feel so much better about yourself.”
Speaking at the event was a cathartic experience, Saelzer said. “When I finally got the courage and the opportunity to speak, I decided to let it go and let everyone know.”
Since the event, Saelzer has received positive feedback from youths who relate to her journey. She is thankful knowing that she isn’t alone in her experience, something she wouldn’t have realized if she hadn’t allowed herself to be vulnerable by publicly sharing her account of bullying.
With her darkness behind her, and a newfound sense of camaraderie, she looks forward to a fulfilling future. Saelzer plans to pursue her passion for helping animals by attending a related college program.
“It’s amazing how one day can change your life,” she said.
MSSAB began as a Facebook group co-founded by 17-year-olds Yianni Kioussis and Dalton Cole as a response to Kioussis being bullied. The pair felt that it was important to have a virtual space where youths could share their stories and be supported. “We created this group so teens have a place to speak up,” said Kioussis. “So they’re not scared, and so they don’t feel alone.”
The group grew to 10,000 members in just six days thanks to a passionate social media campaign led by a team of six primary members. Joining Cole and Kioussis were event coordinator Ryan Ashley, 18; web designer Branden Cole, 21; team support Cory Mottram, 17, and social media manager Aaron Zomers, 15.
The group now maintains a website that allows youths to share personal stories and offers resource information; it also has a chat feature providing anonymous peer support. To keep up to date or to get involved in future MSSAB initiatives, please visit miltonstandsstrong.com.