AVON LAKE — Andrea Bestor, 17, turned her despair over a fellow student’s suicide last year into a wristband campaign to change how people act.
People who wear the bands are asked to shift the band to the other wrist when they say something nasty about someone else.
Her essay about that effort won the $50,000 grand prize scholarship in the “Stop the Hate: Youth Speak Out!” essay contest of the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage. (Scroll to the end of this story to read her award-winning essay.)
Andrea said she was grateful — and humbled — by her selection among some 1,800 entrants in the contest.
She said she wrote from the heart about the death of the student she called “Jay” in her essay.
A little overweight and a little short-fused, the teen became an object of ridicule in the school, she remembered.
“His name became an insult — don’t pull a Jay,” she remembered.
The youth shot himself and died while being rushed to the hospital.
Her eyes still tear up when she thinks about attending the boy’s funeral with a friend.
Only a few other students and family members were there.
Andrea said she thought back to the time in fifth and sixth grade, when she was the subject of ridicule.
“I kind of had this different punk-Gothic style, and I was a little on the heavier side,” she said. “Fifth grade was when people started calling me fatty.”
Through it all, she had the support of people who cared, and she also had her singing to make her feel good about herself.
Andrea takes voice lessons at the Baldwin-Wallace Music Conservatory and has sung with the Oberlin Choristers and Cleveland Orchestra Youth Chorus.
She just wishes Jay had a chance to find that special something.
“I feel if he would have realized what he was good at, he wouldn’t have given up,” she said. “I feel he would have accomplished great things.”
Avon Lake Superintendent Bob Scott said Andrea and fellow members of the school’s Key Club have managed to turn something horrible — the boy’s suicide — into something very meaningful. Bullying, racism and intolerance remain a problem that fellow students are best able to tackle, he said.
“The adults can do all kinds of things and the kids will look at it as adults doing all kinds of things,” Scott said. “When kids do something it has a lot more positive impact — this is hugely important.”
Andrea is the daughter of Claudia and Glenn Bestor, and she has an older brother, Ben, 20, a student at the College of Wooster.
She said she plans to use her $50,000 in scholarship winnings to attend Miami University in Oxford, where she plans to study psychology or pre-law. The scholarship should cover her tuition for all four years, she said.
Meanwhile, the money raised from the sale of the $2 wristbands will be sent to Into the Light, a suicide prevention organization, in Jay’s name.
Andrea Bestor’s winning essay
Words, whether they are spoken, written or withheld, are powerful. They were for Jay*, a 15 year-old boy from my high school who took his own life last year because of the cruelty he was forced to endure every day he came to school.
Jay was in special education, was heavy and had trouble connecting with others. Because of this he was an outcast and a target for bullies, his name even becoming an insult around school. It was common for students to jokingly celebrate his absences from class. Cruel words that were spoken pushed Jay to the edge, and the words that could’ve saved him weren’t there. The day after Jay’s suicide, our school had a moment of silence, and one student said, “Who cares? No one liked him anyway.”
Although Jay’s tragic death had a powerful impact on the majority of the students at my school, that impact was sadly short-lived. While mourning Jay, many people made a conscious effort to be more sensitive about the words they spoke, but unfortunately that didn’t last. Only six students from my school attended Jay’s funeral. Two of the six were my friend and I, and we weren’t even close with Jay.
Although, as I said, I wasn’t well acquainted with Jay, his death made me more conscious of what I say to and about others, and I wanted to inspire my peers to be more conscious as well. If you were to walk through my high school halls today, you would hear hateful speech and harsh judgments. When I thought about how to address this issue, I wanted to come up with a concrete way of reminding people of how their speech matters immensely to others. That’s how the Speak No Evil Campaign was born.
With the sponsorship of the school’s Key Club, the Speak No Evil Campaign will consist of raising personal awareness, fundraising, and a school-wide education effort, which will include a symposium with speakers from Suicide Prevention Education Alliance (SPEA) who will discuss the devastating effects of bullying and depression on the psychological health of teens. To raise awareness, we will sell silicone wristbands, with the inscription “Speak No Evil.” Students will be encouraged to watch what they say about others. When they do speak evil, they will switch the wristband to their other wrist. The purpose of this is to increase awareness of how often we speak disparagingly of others. The money raised from the sale of the wristbands will be sent to Into the Light, a suicide prevention organization, in Jay’s name.
Even when said jokingly, cruel words can kill. I am confident the Speak No Evil Campaign will raise awareness about the devastating effects of hateful speech. I hope the effect will be lasting, just like the effect Jay’s death had on me. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “In the end, we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” I choose not to be silent anymore.
* Name has been changed
Contact Cindy Leise at 329-7245 or firstname.lastname@example.org.