Words by Tess Becker
One of the hardest things to navigate growing up is inclusion and acceptance. And for kids dealing with disabilities or other problems that becomes even harder. Some may feel like outcasts even among their peers.
That’s something that Beyond Differences wanted to do away with. As an organization, they want to “end social isolation and create cultures of belonging for everyone.”
“We envision a world where all youth are accepted, valued, and included no matter their differences,” they say.
Chronic loneliness is serious and can impact physical and mental health. Beyond Differences wants to address this at the root and impact middle school-age kids still in a formative time of their lives.
The founders of the organization – Laura Talmus and Ace Smith – started it in honor of their late daughter Lili who was born with Apert Syndrome, a rare cranial-facial anomaly. As a result of her condition, she was treated differently by her peers and teachers and was bullied, isolated, or treated like she was invisible.
After she passed, her former classmates and her parents rallied and wanted to fight for more inclusion so people wouldn’t feel like she did. This feeling, in particular, was during lunch when after finishing her meal Lili would hide in the bathroom with nowhere she felt she belonged and she would call her mom to pick her up.
“As a parent after hearing those repeated pleas for help, my heart was breaking,” Laura tells Smiley News. “Not surprisingly, we started with that vulnerable moment of the school day [lunch]. Unlike being in a classroom where you have structure, you don't notice if you're the only one that doesn't feel like you have any friends or feel connected.”
So they got to work implementing a plan to help kids feel connected at lunch and eventually they came up with No One Eats Alone Day.
No One Eats Alone Day is a ‘day of action’ that focuses on 5th through 8th graders and encourages youth to sit with others, find new friends, and model ways to end social isolation in the lunch room.
They reach over 2,500 in all 50 states and reach over 1 million students annually every year on February 17.
“There's a lot of influx coming into kids' minds these days that we didn't even have 10-20 years ago, but my money is on the kids,” Laura says. “If you can get them young enough, while they're still developing their values can be influenced by becoming more accepting of one another and I'm going for that.”
In general, they like to champion the differences in people and have also started other programs to cover topics like the violence and discrimination through programs like Know Your Classmates and help students navigate online spaces in a more empathetic way with Be Kind Online. They also offer curriculum to teachers so they can help students when issues arise.
As a rule, they just want to help kids feel more included and help them learn kindness and empathy for their peers while also highlighting the struggles that some children have with social isolation.
“We really believe in supporting teachers and kids to create connection and a sense of belonging so that no one has to have depression, suicidal ideation, self-harm, or anything like that,” Laura says. “We just want a world where kids can feel accepted for who they are. That is really our North Star.”
Find out more and support Beyond Differences on its website.