HAMMOND — When 18-year-old Julian Torres was younger, like so many kids his age, he was bullied.
He said beginning in fourth grade, kids picked on him for his weight, singling him out to the point he would come home from school crying, begging his dad not to make him go back. It all came to a head in middle school, Torres said, when he got into a fight that forced him to contemplate bullying from the aggressor's perspective.
Since then, Torres has found comfort in sharing his story.
“I developed a lot of depression and a lot of anxiety,” Torres said.
“The only thing that got me out of that dark place was helping people, letting them know they’re not alone, just being able to be the person they can talk to, the person they could confide to.”
Torres, a senior at East Chicago Central High School, is now opening up about his experience as one of seven members of the newly formed North Township Youth Steering Committee.
Sitting around a table in the Hammond office of North Township Trustee Frank Mrvan, these students, all from different cities and different schools, discussed their shared experience — growing up a teen in Northwest Indiana.
They talked about the fights and negative relationships they had witnessed in their schools, how drug use and cyberbullying through social media have grown common among their peers, and what they could do to shine a light on these issues.
“All of these kids grow up in such different environments, whether it be at school or at home, but it seems like we’re still facing the same problems,” said 16-year-old Lilia Brunetti, a junior at Munster High School. “At the end of the day, we're facing the same struggles under the same laws with the same societal pressures.”
This brain trust of Northwest Indiana student leaders was formed this winter in the first-of-its-kind committee, meeting once a week for the last month to plan for a youth summit being presented today to more than 200 high schoolers at Purdue University Northwest’s Student Union Library.
The 13 Reasons Why Not forum, loosely inspired by issues raised in the popular Netflix series, "13 Reasons Why," will feature panels addressing topics such as anxiety and depression, suicide prevention and dating violence. Mental health professionals, school administrators and PNW nursing and education students will be featured in the day's events to help educate students on available resources.
The initiative began after Mrvan’s No More Secrets campaign, tackling child sex abuse in Indiana, brought the trustee and his staff into local schools. He said through No More Secrets, he was led to better understand the challenges teens face today.
The trustee’s office then reached out to administrators and counselors in area schools for their recommendations of student leaders who could help put these issues into context on a peer-to-peer level, forming the office’s first Youth Steering Committee.
Mrvan said in putting on the 13 Reasons Why Not conference, he hopes students can be provided resources and coping mechanisms for the issues students themselves find most important and pressing among their peers.
“Kids today face a tremendous amount of social pressures that no one else faced,” Mrvan said. “High school teenagers today are very insightful. They are very attuned to what’s going on in the world and face greater challenges than I did.”
The forum is just the beginning of a series of Youth Steering Committee efforts expected to carry into the spring.
Steering committee members have filmed parts in a short documentary to be shared on Facebook and are scheduled to make regular radio appearances this month on WJOB. Some of the students’ writing has appeared in guest columns published in The Times.
While today’s summit is largely shaped around student education, Brunetti said she hopes the community at large, especially adults, can learn something about what students feel about challenges in their lives.
“By using The Times as a platform and the radio station as a platform, we can really reach those older audiences that aren’t with us in school and don’t see what’s going on all the time,” Brunetti said. “We’re hoping to have a say in things that are affecting us, things we should have a say in.”
Byline: Carley Lanich and Kale Wilk sit down with the North Township Youth Steering Committee and its advisers to learn more about their advocacy. Listen to the podcast at nwi.com/podcasts.