CLARKSTOWN, N.Y. -- Sometimes a crisis leads to a crusade. And sometimes that crusade grows legs and becomes a movement to watch. Usually the crusader has some tear and wear on them, which makes Valerie Weisler an exception, and exceptional, by all accounts.
The 17-year-old Clarkstown South High School senior, who lives in New City, is the mastermind behind The Validation Project, an initiative she started three years ago when she was going through a hard time at school.
It was freshman year. Her parents just announced their intention to divorce. Valerie was grappling with the knowledge that she was gay, but wasn't ready to come out to friends or family. She felt like a zombie, walking dead-eyed through her school halls, dressed in baggy sweatshirts, almost physically unable to talk or participate in socially-acceptable ways. "I hated myself," said Weisler, today an ebullient teen, who on at a recent meeting was wearing a floral dress and a bow in her hair. "That's when the bullying started."
Though she was at her lowest point in her life, she took a brave plunge and worked tirelessly to start a movement to help any teen anywhere feel "validated" by pairing them with mentors around the country.
The CEO started a website from her kitchen table (still her headquarters) and used social media, particularly her contacts through the United Synagogue Youth group, to spread the word with social media campaigns that railed against bullying and any oppression. Her high school friends became her board members. She held "card parties," which encouraged teens to make cards for domestically-abused women in shelters. She's helped feed homeless people at Penn Station in New York "who are people just like you and me," she said.
Word spread fast and her work extends around the world. The Validation Project matches teens from 100 countries with a mentor at companies like Google and Seventeen Magazine. Mentors are paired with teens who share similar passions or skills. they work together for a minimum of four hours per week for two months.
Some 6,000 teens have participated in the Validation Project and there are more than 900 chapters worldwide. A teen in rural Uganda was paired with an employee at the Human Rights Campaign who helped him come out. The teen created and sold rainbow bracelets and donated the proceeds to HIV research.
Although The Validation Project is gaining notice, the organization remains unfunded. Weisler said she's applying for 501 C3 status to a variety of universities to study social justice and to continue developing her company. She hopes to create curriculum at schools, adding that anti-bullying programs are not really doing the job.
On Wednesday, Weisler appeared on the Meredith Vieira show, her first television appearance. She received her first major donation, $10,000, from an audience member.
Weisler won a National Jefferson Award for Peace and Justice, enabling her to journey to seven countries to evangelize her mission.
But her biggest public moment to date was when she received the Hudson Valley GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) Leadership Award in Los Angeles last year. Sure it was cool to meet Julia Roberts and Justin Timberlake, too. But the real thrill was coming out, being validated, having come full circle from a time of darkness and loneliness, to feeling at home in her skin, proud of who she is, and thrilled and eager to help other teens make the journey.
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