Submitted on Thu, December 1, 2011
Earlier this month, we had the chance to take part in TEDxYouthMonterey, a day-long event co-hosted by the Monterey Institute for International Studies and Stevenson School, and a veritable army of volunteers and other community organizations. With the theme, “Inspire Tomorrow, Today,” the day drew a packed audience consisting almost exclusively of high school students from the local area, education enthusiasts, and powerful thinkers and doers who refused to subsist on the status quo.
There was Kendall Ronzano, whose NerdGirlHomes is empowering high school students to lend their hands—literally—to fighting homelessness, by building homes from start to finish, and donating them to families in need. An inventor from the time she could walk, Kendall set herself a goal of building a home before graduating high school, and realized that the millions of high school students across the country represented a powerful untapped resource. There was Joe Kochevar, who invented a new means of coding words through images, and shared a glimpse of what Steve Jobs might have looked like at 17. And there was Shandra Benito, a 19-year-old Youth Venturer, who founded a summer camp program for low-income youth as a participant in one of our “Dream It. Do It.” challenges several years ago, and who shared her thinking on the ripple effect that accompanies every action.
In her earliest years, Shandra was like every other happy and healthy baby. But when she reached two and a half and still had only one made-up word in her vocabulary, her parents began to worry. They took her to a specialist, who discovered she had a "mild to moderately severe" hearing disability. From that point forward, she entered a new normal: her first language was sign language and her parents enrolled her in an all-deaf pre-school, with the result that all of her friends were likewise hard of hearing.
It was only as she entered a public kindergarten that she discovered she was different. Sitting on the rainbow-colored carpet tiles on her first day, she looked around to find that no one else wore hearing aids; no one else had an interpreter; and no one else signed. And so, just like that, her disability became something to hide. She would wave off her parents anytime they signed in public, she hated the word "deaf," and spent recess befriending the librarian. When her parents offered to pay her to play outside, she pocketed the money, and took her books to read outdoors while the other children played.
But at the age of 10, all of that changed. Michael, the 18-year-old son of a family friend, came by the house, and the two ended up talking on the couch all day long. Shandra shared her fears about entering middle school, her embarrassment over her hearing aids, and the feelings of isolation that had been with her since that first day of kindergarten. Having a cool 18-year-old tell her that she should be proud of who she was and that she had nothing to fear was all it took. And so, upon entering the sixth grade—a time in which many kids falter, and begin a years-long journey toward dropping out—Shandra bloomed.
No longer afraid of being different, she carefully explained why she read lips and what it meant to be hard of hearing, and found that her peers were no less likely to talk to her. Her hearing aids, and the radio device she carried, become a makeshift walkie-talkie she and her friends used to communicate in class. But she found her disability had given her something, too: she would instinctively sit next to the kid alone at the cafeteria table, because she knew what that feeling was like.
Now 19 and a sophomore at Seattle University, she is the founder and leader of Reach Out, an organization that runs summer camps for low-income and underserved kids each year, offering the same sort of mentorship, encouragement, and willingness to listen that made such a profound difference in her own trajectory.
We wrote earlier this week about the Bystander Effect: the tendency for individuals, when in groups, to stand by, hoping someone else will intervene to help a person in need. But thats's a tendency that can be countered.
Every child knows what it is to feel alone, and similarly what it is to make someone feel alone: the key, then, is giving students the confidence and self-determination required for applied empathy.
If the speakers at TEDxYouthMonterey—and those who participated in the hundreds of TEDxYouth events around the world—were any indication, that message is coming in loud and clear. It’s a good thing, too: we could all stand to hear a little more good news in the world.