Children who have felt isolated are now experiencing a sense of belonging, thanks to a program started by a Marin County woman.
Laura Talmus shows us the box she sends to schools to help students feel good about themselves. She expressed that she wants them to feel connected, loved and accepted.
"When we first got started, we were the first in the country to talk about social isolation. We were basing it on the life of one child who hid in the girl's bathroom during lunch," Talmus said.
That child was Talmus' 15-year-old daughter, Lili, who died in 2009 from medical complications. She was born with a rare cranial-facial anomaly, and felt invisible on campus,which broke Talmus' heart.
"She was terrified of the social pressure of not being accepted or having friends," Talmus said.
In honor of Lili, she founded Beyond Differences, so others wouldn't feel left out. When we first met Talmus a decade ago, more than 120 students led clubs and assemblies in Marin County middle schools to foster tolerance and acceptance.
Since then, the nonprofit has reached faculty and students in more than 10,000 schools across the nation, even as far as Africa, Asia, and Australia. Talmus says one of the nonprofit's signature programs is as important as ever in the post-pandemic return to campus. The annual event called No One Eats Alone - always held around Valentine's Day - encourages lunchtime connections through games and conversation starters.
"If children do not feel connected or safe and don't feel that they have friends, or anyone they can trust in the school community, they're not only going to come back, but they can't possibly be ready to learn," Talmus explained.
She is especially proud of the national team of high school leaders who develop Beyond Differences' middle school curriculum.
At their most recent meeting at University High School in San Francisco with some participants joining over live video conferencing, Inga Iverson described the impact the nonprofit had in her school years ago.
"I felt very seen, and I felt a lot more comfortable to talk to more people and make more friends," Iverson said.
Iverson and fellow leaders like Pax Nakahata help younger students respect each other's identity.
"It feels great to help others express their culture and be proud of who they are," Nakahata said.
Thanks to Talmus, students are looking beyond differences, creating the kind of community that her daughter Lili would have wanted.
The annual No One Eats Alone event takes place Friday, Feb.16 in the Bay Area and thousands of schools nationwide.
To sign up, go to beyonddifferences.org.
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