Avon Lake eighth-grader Julia Jantz remembers witnessing an incident of bullying in the sixth grade, and said it has stuck with her to this day.
"It was in music class," Jantz, 14, said, recalling the classmate who was constantly picked on. "It seemed like no one gave her a chance to be friends with her. People would make fun of her as she walked down the hallways, like a regular event. People would make fun of her for her hair or her outfit."
That day, Jantz and another classmate made an effort to ask the girl to join their group. Jantz said the small effort made a big difference for the girl.
In April, Jantz's recollection of the incident was honored at Severance Hall in Cleveland as part of the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage fourth annual "Stop The Hate: Youth Speak Out!" essay contest. The contest collected essays focused on bullying from students in grades 6 to 12 from across Northeast Ohio -- among all other 8th graders in the contest, Jantz's essay won first prize.
Jantz said being a voice against bullying is important, and it's something simple that others should strive to do.
"I know the suicide rate in teens has gone up," Jantz said from her home in Avon Lake last week. "And I just feel like that shouldn't be happening. It's happening for a reason, and it's not that hard to be nice to someone."
Jantz said the students in her Language Arts class at Lear Middle School were required to write an essay to submit for the contest, but she did not think she would end up with top honors for her grade.
"(I found out) a few months after I entered," she said. "I really didn't think I was going to hear anything about it after that. I was going to my last period math class, and my teacher told me my Language Arts teacher wanted me."
"I was kind of scared I was in trouble," she added with a laugh. "Then I got a text from my mom saying I was a finalist. Then my teacher made me read it in front of the class, which was kind of embarrassing."
While Jantz found out she was a finalist that, she was not announced as the winner until the ceremony at Severance Hall in Cleveland.
"It was a really cool experience," she said, adding that she enjoyed taking in what other students across the state had done. "It was cool to see what the high schoolers had done to take a stand."
In her winning essay, Jantz shows she has flair for descriptive and engaging writing. It's something she enjoys, but she said she does not yet know if its something she'd like to pursue as a career choice.
"I definitely like to write, but I don't know if that's what I want to be when I grow up, necessarily," she said. Her dad, Ron Jantz, is quick to add that Julia is creative, and sometimes writes song in her spare time.
"I think it would be cool to be physical therapist for kids," Julia said, adding that she runs track for her school. "My sister had a stroke before she was born and has had to go to physical therapy."
For winning the contest, Jants will receive $300 - a hefty sum for an 8th grader. Jantz said she would like to purchase a Kindle Fire with the winnings.
1,800 students from Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Lorain Medina, Portage and Summit counties submitted essays through all grade levels in this year's contest.
Bryan Naelitz, a senior at Marion L. Steele High School in Amherst, also won an Honorable Mention for the high school bracket. He could not be reacher for comment.
Julia Jantz's winning essay
(courtsey of the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage):
Stopping hate isn't about huge, life changing moments. Little things make the biggest impact, and added up, those little things can be the
real life changers. After experiencing what if felt like to act up, and lend a hand to someone who needed it, I hope others will too.
The girl's eyes were misty and wet. Her face seemed to have a ghostly glare reflecting on it as she rushed away from the huddle of laughing teens, trying her best to conceal her face beneath her pile of books. The odd, plaid shoes resting upon her feet made an obnoxious clunking
noise as she tried to continue down the hallway in peace. Even though no words were spoken toward her as she walked, she might as well
�have been screamed at. The eyes following her were insult enough.
�I felt for the girl, but convinced myself she had brought the hatred and humiliation upon herself. I was wrong.
Later, in class we were assigned a group activity. Within a matter of seconds, each clique in the room easily separated into groups of three.
A simple task for me was a nightmare for her. She stood alone, fiddling with the frays on the edge of her shirt, not even attempting to find a partner, as so many times before it had proven impossible. I looked at my friend Kailey, and pretending to be pained, I said "Ugh. Let's just be nice and partner with ... her." Kailey's lifted eyebrows told me how she felt about the idea, but I didn't care, so I tugged her hand and dragged her over. As we approached, the girl's face went from gloom to terror.
Her eyes grew wide and she seemed to be shaking as she uttered "Sorry, I'll ... move." I felt terrible. "No." I said quickly, "Wanna partner with us?" Her eyes widened, and a huge smile flashed across her face. "I'd love that!"
Class continued and my ears ached as I listened to her go on, and on, about her cats, origami, and other things that I don't usually stumble upon in average conversation. I didn't say anything though, because I understood simply nodding my head and smiling meant the world to her. Finally the end of class arrived, and just as I was about to leave,
the girl grabbed my arm and whispered, "Sorry if I talk too much, I'm not quite sure how to talk with friends."
Little things -- a smile, a helping hand, an unsolicited compliment, an invitation to belong -- can turn someone's bad day, into a good one.
I feel that when someone sees another person take a chance on a victim, they feel the urge to make a change, too. If that chain reaction could be created, quite a few lives could be changed. The problem is, no one is brave enough to start. It takes someone courageous to stand up and simply say, "Stop." I did, but even still, I understand that once isn't enough to defeat hate.
PARMA, Ohio -- When Padua Franciscan High School senior Peyton Lunder was instructed in her creative writing class to write a personal essay to be entered into the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage's 10th annual Stop the Hate contest, the Parma resident decided this was her time to take ownership of her past and perhaps help others do the same.
"We were supposed to write something that was meaningful to us," Lunder said. "I was sexually assaulted when I was younger by my father. So I wrote about what I went through, how I was able to deal with it and overcome it. I wanted to help other people be able to talk about it."
The result is Lunder's essay "Shattering the Silence." Last week, the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage named her a Top 25 finalist. The writing contest winners will be announced April 29 at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
"These essays tell important stories of the realities of discrimination students face in their lives and how they choose to handle themselves in those situations," Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage Managing Director David Schafer said.
"Peyton is an example of a young upstander who not only imagines a future without hate, but is taking action to create the kind of world we all deserve to live in," he said.
Lunder didn't think her essay would be picked as a finalist.
"It's all been very exciting," Lunder said. "I guess I spoke from my heart and said what I was feeling. I was being honest and saying what people need to hear.
"I felt like if I didn't write and speak about my history now, then maybe I wouldn't have gotten the opportunity to possibly turn it into something that could help me live my life."
Open to students in grades 6-12, Stop the Hate challenges young people to consider the benefits of a more inclusive society, the consequences of intolerance and the role of personal responsibility in effecting change.
Personal essay contest winners take home individual scholarship money for college, while their respective schools also receive money for anti-bias education. More than 30,000 students in the past decade have participated.
"Stop the Hate is more than a scholarship or grant opportunity; it's a movement," Stop the Hate Program Chair Jordan Goldberg said in a press release. "We're living in a time when speaking out and standing up for each other matters more than ever.
"This movement is about educating and empowering young people to use their voices for good."
Win or lose, that's exactly what Lunder has planned for her future, which includes studying journalism this fall at Ohio University.
"I want to continue to use my voice and put it out there," Lunder said. "Absolutely just being able to write about this and being able to share my story to people who read my essay, I think that's a win in and of itself."