Parents tackle issue of teen bullying, acceptance

June 30, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
A Bay Area power couple, known for their tough political tactics, is helping teens learn to be nicer to each other.

A new group called "Beyond Differences," is tackling the issue of teen bullying and social isolation. The group was started by Laura Talmus and Ace Smith in honor of their daughter Lili Rachel Smith, who was born with a rare condition known as Apert's syndrome.

Lili was a happy little girl growing up in Marin County, but her friends disappeared right around the time she hit middle school.

"She was really just dealt out of a social life," Talmus said.

Lili's charm still made her popular with adults -- including her parents' powerful political friends -- but she wanted to connect with kids her own age too.

"I think it slowly eroded her self confidence," Talmus said.

Lili started boarding school at 15, where she found kids who accepted her. But Lili died suddenly of medical complications.

"In that young woman, there was so much self-determination," family friend and State Attorney General Kamala Harris said.

Now, Lili's parents are using that spirit of determination to encourage teenagers to be nicer to each other. One of their first events attracted a standing room-only crowd full of anxious parents where students talked about the cruelties of middle school.

"It was miserable," a student named Mason said. "If you were just the slightest bit different, then no one is gonna talk to you."

An Lili's parents were energized to keep going with a series of public events that urged teenagers. "Beyond Differences" created a teen board of kids reaching out to kids at school and community gatherings.

The most recent "Beyond Differences" event attracted 300 people. It was upbeat but contained a serious message about why stopping social isolation matters so much.

"It can lead to depression, to thoughts of suicide, failure in school," Harris said. "It can lead to a child becoming very vulnerable to predators."

Lili's parents say they've been overwhelmed by the support and they'll keep reaching out to teens who feel alone and those who can help.

"Leading is not just about being popular and making yourself as popular as possible, but including everyone," Smith says.

"Beyond Differences" next event is on June 1 at the College of Marin. The event is free. More information can be found at BeyondDifferences.org.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney

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