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Laura Talmus

Executive Director and Cofounder of Beyond Differences

My daughter, Lili Rachel Smith, was born with Apert Syndrome, a genetic disorder that distorted her face and hands; the 12 surgeries she had didn’t bother her but social isolation at school did. She died at age 15, and I was 54 when I started Beyond Differences, an organization that’s focused on ending social isolation in middle schools across the country.

The problem I’m trying to solve

Social isolation is a preventable public health crisis, affecting millions of kids, especially those who are perceived as “different” because of their physical appearance, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or other characteristics. It’s harder to spot than teasing or bullying behaviors, but it can cause social, emotional and health problems for kids, and it can affect their academic performance. The root of our mission is to inspire kids to end social isolation in their own middle schools. We want to empower students to change their culture, accept and embrace their differences and promote a sense of connection with one another — by making a difference themselves.

The moment that sparked my passion for this

At Lili’s memorial service at our synagogue, we handed out small booklets with excerpts of Lili’s writing and family photos. That night one of my friends went home and asked her son if he was friends with Lili and when was the last time that he invited her to do something with him and his friends. He realized he hadn’t in a long time. About six months later, I went back to that boy, who was in 9th grade, and we decided to bring a group of kids together to talk about how older kids could bring a program, as mentors, to middle schools to talk about social isolation and what kids can do about it. It started with my taking eight kids who grew up with Lili out for hot chocolate and a conversation about this issue.

Our first step was to have a school assembly where kids shared stories of feeling socially isolated or watching someone else experience social isolation and not knowing what to do about it. These are kids who had never had an opportunity to stand up and speak on a microphone and be a rock star — it was powerful and moving. Then, we developed a middle-school leadership program and a curriculum for teachers to use, and the organization grew from there. In less than eight years, Beyond Differences’ free curriculum about promoting inclusion has been used by teachers and students in more than 5,000 schools across the country. And we’ve trained more than 500 middle and high school students in leadership, public speaking and outreach so they can become community role models for others.

How my life has shaped this pursuit

I came of age professionally when the women’s rights and civil rights movements were burgeoning. I always felt inspired by social justice issues and I’ve always worked in the nonprofit sector. One of the positions I hold dearest was the last five years as executive director of the American Jewish World Service, which raises money and grants it to civil rights organizations that are fighting for rights in the poorest countries around the world, places where families were being split in half. That experience helped me get through my own tragedy of losing Lili.

Advice to those who want to make a difference

Social-justice causes typically grow from something personal, so think about what you feel passionate and righteous about. The best course to follow is one that feels meaningful to you. When you decide to act, keep things as accessible and transparent as possible and use your resources well. Also, make it intergenerational because young people are smart and they have so much to offer.

Why my approach is unique

Other organizations focus on bullying after the damage has been done. Our program motivates students to recognize social isolation problems before they develop into bullying or other problems. Beyond Differences involves a student-led movement where youths become the agents of change. Our events include Know Your Classmates Day, where kids use art and creativity to better understand their unique identities while appreciating differences in others; No One Eats Alone Day, where kids eat lunch with those they don’t normally hang out with and make a point to include those who are left out; and Call It Out Day, which is focused on raising awareness of the harmful effects of online social isolation and digital gossip.

What’s next for Beyond Differences

We want to embed the issue of social isolation in the lexicon of popular culture so people are aware of this and talk about this. We want to continue changing behavior among 11- to 14-year-old kids so they’re more likely to include each other than put each other down. My vision is to have every school in the U.S. using our curriculum and having programs that really value not just social and emotional learning but changes the attitude and culture of middle school so kids don’t suffer.

I feel like I’ve made a huge impact in the lives of kids who became student leaders. They tell me about the things they learned from Beyond Differences and used in college, either personally or by starting clubs or organizations — they’ve become active and compassionate human beings. That’s been particularly gratifying to see. 

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