For one grad, a club she joined in college has become a way for her to help carry out one of her alma matter’s goals. Last week, Cassandra VanDerhorn and about 25 other members of the Bergen Community College SPARK - Students Practicing Acts of Random Kindness - Club spoke to Mahwah students about bullying.
The group, which travels to high schools around the area to talk to teens about bullying issues, spoke to two packed auditoriums of Mahwah high schoolers about their personal experiences with bullying, and the impact that bullying can have.
“A majority of [the students we talk to] can relate to [what we do] in some way through a personal experience,” VanDerhorn said.
When SPARK members asked students in Mahwah what they thought bullying was, one student in the crowd responded, “going out of your way to make someone’s life miserable.” Throughout the course of the presentation, the college students got their younger counterparts to admit that most have been victims before.
One of the presenters, Caroline, shared a story with the group about how she was both a bully and a victim. In middle school, she was a competitive dancer, so she developed muscular legs, and was taunted by other girls in the locker room who called her ‘fat.’ “I took my frustration out on another girl, Christina, who was blonde and skinny. I became a bully to her.”
By the time she got to high school, Caroline had pushed many of her friends away, and was experiencing symptoms of depression. “I developed two terrible habits in my first two years of high school,” she revealed to the crowd. “Bulimia and cutting.”
The girl’s fate changed in an unexpected way when Christina, the girl she had bullied a few years earlier, was hired at the same after-school job Caroline held. “In the beginning we ignored each other, but one day she caught me throwing up my lunch. She tried to talk to me about it, and at first I resisted. But, eventually, I opened up to her.” Caroline says she owes her recovery from bulimia and cutting to Christina’s understanding and help.
“The girl I bullied actually saved my life,” she said. “Thank God my bullying didn’t change her, because I don’t know what would have happened to me if it had.”
In one of the final exercises of the presentation, high school students were asked to stand if an experience explained by the SPARK members had ever happened to them. Students reluctantly rose to reveal that a majority of the auditorium had been bullied for one reason or another – because of their race, religion, intelligence, or physical appearance. Most said they had been put down by an adult, and many said they felt they needed to compete with siblings for love or attention.
For the final question, students were asked to close their eyes, and stand if they’d ever felt alone or scared. When nearly everyone in the room stood, students were told to open their eyes. “This is proof that you are never alone,” members of SPARK said. “Everyone in this school is a lot more similar than you think.”
The presentation comes at a poignant time, as the district instituted new state-mandated anti-bullying measures at each school building this year. At the last board of education meeting, Dr. Karen Lake said there were seven reported instances of bullying in the Mahwah school district in the past month. After investigations by an anti-bullying committee of teachers and administrators, three of the incidents were found to be bulling, harassment, and/or intimidation. The school must take state-mandated steps to try to mediate the bullying situations in the schools.
VanDerhorn, a 2010 Mahwah grad, says she hopes the SPARK a Change presentation will influence students in the district to think twice before hurting their peers. “We were very pleased with the feedback we received from the Mahwah students,” she said. “We try to make a difference in people’s lives, and I hope we did.”