Yahoo! Exclusive: Molly Burke empowers Canada’s youth to stand up to bullying

Nadine Kalinauskas
Good News Writer
Daily Brew

November 12th to 17th is National Bullying Awareness Week.

A recent survey by Free the Children, RBC and TELUS found that both youth (86%) and adults (85%) in Canada agreed that young people are adequately empowered to stand up to bullying.

Among those standing up to bullying is Molly Burke, 18. The blind Me to We motivational speaker recently shared her personal bullying experiences — and her journey from hopelessness to hopefulness — with Yahoo! Canada News.

Burke was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease called retinitis pigmentosa at the age of 4.

"What that means is, 'You're going to lose your vision but we don't know when,'" Burke explains.

By the time she was 5, Burke was speaking publicly on behalf of the Foundation Fighting Blindness. The next year, in anticipation of losing her sight, she started learning Braille and how to use a cane.

Yahoo! Canada: When did the bullying start?

Burke: For me, that's when the bullying started. Because it made me different. Kids didn't understand why I was doing those things. And I didn't understand because I could still play soccer and I could still read the chalkboard. It wasn't serious bullying at that point, it was just a lack of understanding from the kids as well as myself.

And then as I grew older, it progressed more and more. Over the course of about 6 to 8 months of my Grade 8 year, I slowly lost my vision due to my disease. Not only did I lose my vision, but I also lost all of my friends and my hope.

I suffered from depression at that time. People often say, "Of course, losing your vision, that's a really difficult time." But what shocks people is that it really wasn't the vision loss that was the most difficult. It was the bullying that I was facing. Not only from students, but from teachers as well. Not only offline, but online. It felt like I could never get away from it. It felt like it was everyone, it was surrounding me. It was definitely a very difficult time.

Four years ago, I was dealing with the standard name-calling and things like that, but also more severe situations. I was on crutches at one point and completely blind, so I was relying on other people. I couldn't use my guide dog, I couldn't use a cane, and other people were helping me get around. A group of girls that had just, months earlier, been my best friends decided they were going to lead me down a big hill into a forest. They took my crutches and basically just left me there and they went back to class.

Another situation: I had a girl dress up as me for Halloween and show up to school and basically spend the entire day making fun of me and mocking me and making fun of everything that I do and who I am.

And then everything online, people just commenting and writing mean statuses and pictures and things like that. It's really difficult to deal with when it's surrounding you. Unfortunately, I'm hearing stories like that more and more of the online bullying, which is very difficult to deal with because you can't get away from it. It's not just at school anymore. It's everywhere.

How would you describe the journey from hopelessness to hope? What changed for you?

For me: looking back.

Yes, I lost my friends and I lost my vision and I lost my will to live and I lost a lot of things, but the most important and vital thing that i had lost was my hope. Hope that it would get better. Hope that I could get through it. Hope that life goes on and I would recover. That was what was so crucial.

And I think my suicidal thoughts and my depression was that I had lost hope. Once I had realized that, I started my journey of rediscovering what hope now meant to me. And that's when my recovery started: when I started reaching out outside of myself and I realized that I needed to stop running from my problems. I needed to deal with them. And I needed to start asking for help and admit that I couldn't do it alone.

Not only just in times of difficulty, but as teenagers, we tend to have a lot of self-pity, a lot of "Why me?", "The world revolves around me." And once I started to realize that there's a whole world out there that is willing to support me and there's a whole world out there that also needs help, that's when I started to recover and find hope again.

What's it like telling your story to thousands of people at a time through Me to We?

Especially in a crowd like a We Day room, it's really amazing to hear 20,000 people screaming in support when just four years ago I felt so alone, and to be able to reach out to youth who are dealing with similar issues or just going through a tough time. They just need to be told it gets better. They just need to see somebody who's been through it and who has gone though it and who is young like them and still deals with young-people's issues. It's a good feeling.

My goal is to be the role model that I wanted and that I didn't have. To be that person. To be there for those people that are going through that. Because I didn't have that. I didn't have somebody to share their story and to let me know that it would get better. And that's what I'm trying to do.

When you speak, are you speaking to the kids who are being bullied or to the bullies?

My goal is to speak to both.

To the bullied: You're not alone and it gets better.

And to the bullies: I want them to realize how it makes people feel. I always say, as humans, we all have a heartbeat and we all have blood that pumps through us and we all need to breathe and we need sleep and we need food and water. And bullies make people feel that they don't deserve those things anymore. People need to realize how much words can do.

Do you have a call to action for those of us who don't currently identify with either "bully" or "bullied" category? Are there steps we can take to end bullying?

Bullying happens everywhere. It happens in schools, but it can happen in your home, at your workplace. It happens to all races, all ages, all religions. It can happen to absolutely anybody. And it could happen to you.

You don't have to necessarily stand up for the person. Yes, that's great, but it can also be really scary. You're putting yourself out there, you're putting yourself on the line and that can be scary.

What I always ask people to do is if you see that person sitting alone and looking sad, or you've just witnessed somebody getting bullied, or you've seen online that that person is being bullied, even if they're not in the same grade as you, even if you don't know them, go up to them, introduce yourself, let them know that they're not alone.

Let them know that you're there for them. Let them know that if they want to talk, you're there. Eat lunch with them. Get to know them. Because that's what I would have loved. I would have loved if somebody did that. That's all you really want: to know that it's gonna be okay.