People around the world are pouring their hearts out and offering words of encouragement and sympathy to a Northern California teenager who was taunted and teased so mercilessly that she stayed up nights thinking of ways she could kill herself.
Thousands of letters have arrived already since word spread in the media and in cyberspace about the plight of 14-year-old Olivia Gardner.
“I am feeling so wonderful that there is so much support, a smiling Olivia told the TODAY’s Ann Curry during a live interview Wednesday. “There are like 100 good people for every bad person there is in the world.”
Olivia hasn’t been smiling much these past two years. It all began when she was 12 and suffered an epileptic seizure in class. Other children began calling Olivia names and made threats. Sometimes, they would beat her up, forcing Olivia to hide in bathroom stalls between classes. One bully dragged her new backpack through the mud.
Kathleen Gardner said she felt helpless to be of any comfort to Olivia, who become withdrawn and had anxiety attacks that required her to be home schooled. Gardner went to the authorities, school officials and parents of the children taunting her daughter. She got nowhere.
“A lot of parents told me they didn’t have time for it. They didn’t care, it was just typical middle school behavior,” Gardner recalled, tears welling up in her eyes as she spoke. “But when you watch your child just disappear, losing interest in all their activities, and then find out she had a plan for suicide, it’s heartbreaking.”
Olivia, like many children who are bullied, tried to hide her fear from her family. Fearing there was nowhere to turn, she even considered taking her own life. “I was almost there every night. I’d have suicidal thoughts. It was terrible,” Olivia said. “I was thinking of ways to do it. It was just the worst thing ever.”
Finally some help
When Gardner turned to the media for help publicize what she learned was apparently a widespread problem among teens, two sisters from a nearby school district decided they wanted to help Olivia.
Early this spring, Emily Buder, 17, and Sarah, 14, organized “Olivia’s Letters,” an effort that encourages teens and others to write supportive letters to Olivia. In addition to writing their own letters of encouragement, they solicit and screen letters from others. The story caught fire and now Olivia is getting thousands of letters from people all over the world.
Rosalind Wiseman, an author and expert on issues affecting adolescents, said parents need to be aware that bullying does go on and that their children will not always turn to them for help.
She said parents should watch for warning signs: isolation, change of appetite, avoiding social situations, losing friends and finding excuses to avoid going to school.
But even if parents do not see warning signs, it is a good idea for parents to talk to their children about how other people treat them and let them know that no one has the right to make them feel uncomfortable or threatened.
“Go talk to your kids and say, ‘I don’t know if this is happening to you, or if this is every going to happen to you, but if anyone every makes you feel like dirt, you don’t have to deal with that,’” Wiseman advised.
To show support to Olivia, write to Olivia’s Letters, c/o Janet Buder, 293 Corte Madera Ave., Mill Valley , Calif. 94941.