Aidan Benavides is a born performer. Growing up in northern New Jersey, he's had his sights set on Broadway since the fourth grade. In place of the soccer practice and sports team try-outs that dominated many boys' schedules, Aidan could be found on a stage, singing, dancing, and acting.
For years, his love of musical theatre elicited the usual stinging taunts from other kids in his school. School administrators frequently ignored the bullying, believing that only physical assault was worthy of reprimand. In the seventh grade, however, all of that came to a head. During a performance of Annie Jr., Aidan stepped on stage to deliver a solo. Standing before the entire student body, he heard a group of kids yell out, "Faggot!"
The incident produced an outcry in the school, and the kids were eventually identified and punished. Though deeply hurt, Aidan realized that punishing those kids wasn't going to end the problem.
"I realized that when I went home, I had someone’s shoulder to cry on, and not everyone is so lucky. So I wanted to be that person for other people."
And so Aidan's Voice was born. Urged on by his mom, friends, and school administrators, Aidan launched the organization to help raise awareness about bullying among parents, educators, and students, and to fund the sort of school-based solutions that he'd seen work in the past.
The group offers peer counseling and support to students experiencing bullying. Powered by a Facebook page with more than 900 fans, Aidan’s Voice shares inspirational quotes and motivational stories, as well as advice for kids having trouble.
Now a fourteen-year-old freshman in the Performing Arts Program at Howell High School, Aidan and a growing team comprised largely of students respond to Facebook messages and emails from kids who are struggling with bullying. They even set up a phone line that kids can call to find help or a peer willing to listen.
"We’re not psychiatrists or doctors, but we can help because we went through it."
The experience has challenged even some of his own preconceptions.
Aidan recalls one time when a popular girl at school — one that he had assumed had "the perfect life" — emailed the group to say that she was having trouble fitting in. A couple of girls had picked on her for her weight and how she dressed, and despite appearances, she felt alone.
"Too often, we don’t step outside of our own shoes. We’re so stuck in our world that we only think one way," he says. "I never thought about that popular girl not having friends and feeling alone. We all need to look outside our own selves."
But it doesn’t end there: according to Aidan, empathizing with victims of bullying isn’t enough. "Everyone has bullied,” he explains. The key, he says, is to turn the mirror on yourself: to reflect on the occasions you've felt alone or inadequate, and before cowing to social pressures, to consider how your actions could leave others feeling the same way.
To date, he and the team have already raised over $2,000 to support school-based programs that, in his words, create the kind of moments "where you feel like your school is your family." And they’re only just getting started.
On Saturday, Aidan's Voice will host a Walk Against Bullying, with the goal of raising $30,000, helping to fill the gap in programming that school budget shortfalls have left behind.
Aidan has some advice for kids who are being bullied, and who want to improve their school climate.
1. Talk to your principal to see about bringing in a speaker. Aidan’s seen it work again and again: upon hearing the firsthand accounts of kids and family members affected by bullying, kids begin to think before they act, demonstrating real empathy for one another.
2. Find your passion. The greatest thing you can do, he says, is to learn to love yourself and to be comfortable in your own skin. Cast aside the list of all the things you feel you can’t do well, and find the one thing that makes you come alive: the one thing that makes you forget your fears and insecurities.
3. Set goals that motivate you to keep going. “I’ve always set up a goal in the future: I’m going to keep going until I get on Broadway. And when I get there, I’m going to set a new goal.” It’s what gives him the strength to push past all the bullying and serves as a reminder that there’s something worth persevering for.
Look out, Broadway. With conviction like that, we have a feeling this is one kid who won’t be stopped.
This past Spring, Ashoka's Youth Venture and The Bully Project teamed up to launch Stop Bullying: Start Empathy, a campaign to support young changemakers working to tackle bullying before it starts, by putting empathy into practice. Aidan's Voice is one of fifty youth-led solutions to receive support. Click here to learn more about BULLY, and be sure to check out The BULLY Project's Youth and Community Action Guide for ideas on how to be a changemaker in your community.