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Interview: July 2008

July 2008

When sisters Emily and Sarah Buder read a news article in 2006 about Olivia Gardner --- a teenage girl who had been the victim of excessive bullying for over two years --- they launched a letter-writing campaign at their school in hopes of offering her words of comfort. Their local project managed to take on a life of its own, and some of the thousands of letters and e-mails they received worldwide have been compiled and published in LETTERS TO A BULLIED GIRL: Messages of Healing and Hope.

In this interview with's Alexis Burling, Emily and Sarah describe what inspired this undertaking, share their personal favorite messages, and offer ideas on how to reduce and prevent this growing problem. Alexis also spoke with bullying expert Barbara Coloroso, who wrote the book's Foreword, about the effects of media technology on children today, and the measures needed by parents and teachers to stop these acts of violence from occurring.

Emily and Sarah Buder How did the idea come for the project? Was it your own? Were you approached by an agent for publishing?

Emily and Sarah Buder: We read the article on the front page of The San Francisco Chronicle newspaper in March of 2006. We were horrified to read about how mean kids were to Olivia, dragging her backpack through the mud after she had an epileptic attack, wearing bracelets saying "Olivia Shall Die" and posting nasty messages on the Internet. It was unbelievable that she had to change schools three times to try and escape the bullying, yet it followed her to each school and grew worse as more and more people joined in. They had a photo of Olivia in the paper and she looked so dejected. The article said she was being home-schooled by her mother and that she was lonely and depressed. 

We felt so sorry for her and wanted to do something to lift her spirits. We thought that encouraging letters might help, so we started the letter-writing project in our high school. We sent an e-mail through the school PTA to all the families in our school, which included the article about Olivia from the newspaper and asked students to write her encouraging letters. We also went around to classrooms and spoke about the project. It was amazing to see that so many people were willing to take the time to write long, meaningful letters. It was also shocking to read about how many kids had also experienced bullying in school. We spread the project to other local schools, and within two months we had over 500 letters. When the media picked up the story about the project, we began to receive letters (but mostly e-mails) from all over the country and the world.

Olivia's story and the letter-writing project was on the front page of several newspapers and we were approached by agents and publishing companies who wanted to publish a book of the letters so that other people could learn about the effects of bullying and find comfort in the letters. We chose HarperCollins.

TRC: How did you choose which letters to include?

EB: We tried to pick examples of letters that showed the incredible support and encouragement people offered to Olivia. We also chose letters written from different perspectives, such as from people who had bullied others, people who were targets of bullying and bystanders who wish they had done something.

We tried to vary the ages, locations and backgrounds of the letter writers as well as the length of the letters. Even though some are short, we felt they were meaningful in their own special way. Every single letter and e-mail we received was worth including, but unfortunately we couldn't publish all 6,000!

SB: We were given categories of types of letters to include by HarperCollins, and so we read through all the letters we got and picked the ones we thought the public would benefit from. Some letters are incredibly sweet and supportive, while others relate personal experiences about being bullied for a variety of different reasons. We wanted to also include letters from remorseful bullies who shared why they thought they were mean to others.

TRC: How did you choose the order?

EB and SB: We recommended which letters to include and HarperCollins chose the order.

TRC: Is there a letter that stands out to you?

EB: I am serious when I say that every letter stands out to me, and I can almost remember what each person wrote as soon as I see the name or the first sentence. Each letter had its own unique message.

It's a hard choice to pick just one, but I think the letter that had the greatest impact on me was written by a woman in her 40s who was a successful painter until she suffered a stroke and lost all movement in her arms. Painting was her life and she could have taken the attitude that she was robbed of her gift, but instead, she taught herself how to paint holding a paintbrush in her mouth and sent us a card with a beautiful print of one of her recent pieces. Her message to Olivia (and the world) was to persevere through any rough time and never let anything hold you back from realizing your dreams.

SB: I loved all the letters, but if I had to pick my favorites, they would be the ones from the elementary school children. They wrote such wise and cute advice about what to do when people make fun of you, and many of them shared their own stories of bullying. They also drew the most adorable pictures for Olivia, such as stick figures of themselves holding hands with her and happy scenes of friends playing together under rainbows.

TRC: Were you surprised that letters came from abroad?

EB: We were shocked that letters even came from other states! When we started getting e-mails and letters from other countries and we saw how many people from around the world had experienced bullying, we realized how widespread and prevalent the problem is. We got letters from Canada, Germany, Japan, Australia, England, Israel and Italy. They had all read about the project through the news on the Internet. 

SB: We were so surprised to get letters from so far away. It made me realize how fast news stories travel on the Internet and how many people actually read them! It was amazing to see how common bullying is no matter where in the world you live.

TRC: How did you get permission from the letter writers?

EB: We had to obtain a signed release form from every letter/e-mail writer. My mother did most of this part of the project. Many people included their phone numbers, addresses or e-mails when they wrote, so we contacted them and asked their permission to include their letters. All of them immediately said yes, and were very happy to be part of this project. Not one person hesitated, although some wanted certain information taken out. There were some letter writers who we were not able to track down because their phone numbers were unlisted, or they moved; so, if we used their letters, we didn't include any identifying information and changed their names.

SB: It was so great to see how receptive people were to the whole idea of a book. A lot of people wanted Olivia to contact them so they left their telephone numbers, e-mails and addresses. We had to look up many phone numbers, but it was really great to have a chance to communicate with the people. My mom was very involved in getting the releases because it took so much time.

TRC: In the Author’s Note, you write: “These letters have opened our eyes to the need for school administrators, teachers, parents, and legislators to take some serious steps to protect students.” What do you propose those steps should be? 

EB: In so many peoples' stories, they talk about how nothing effective was ever done to help their situation, even when they told their parents, teachers or the school principal. These letters showed us many important things about bullying: parents, teachers, school administrators and legislators do not take the problem seriously enough; people don't realize how much bullying is taking place in schools and on the Internet, and how relentless it can be; also, they don't realize how devastating the effects are and how many kids are actually silently suffering. 

Schools need to have a required educational program to prevent bullying and strict policies in place to address it when it occurs. The letters showed us how often kids are told by parents and teachers to "ignore" the bullies, but what they don't realize is that it is impossible to ignore. It is extremely hurtful and they don't realize the extent of it or how long it goes on. Some kids wrote that they are ashamed to tell anyone about being bullied and they feel depressed and alone. If they are told by adults to ignore it, they will keep things inside and either act out or get depressed. Schools should bring the problem into the open and set "zero-tolerance" rules so that it sets an example that bullying is not acceptable and will not go unpunished.

SB: I think schools are not doing enough to combat the problem of bullying. Since schools are the place where bullying usually occurs, educational programs about the effects of bullying and what to do if you are bullied should be part of the curriculum --- every school year, beginning in elementary school! Just like schools have preventative measures in place in the event of a fire, there should be steps to take in cases of bullying. Also, strict rules should be set to punish bullies and to provide them with counseling for their behavior. Parents should never say "ignore the bullies" because most often the bullies do not go away, and it makes the kids feel like they have to deal with it on their own.

TRC: How can zero tolerance be enforced?

EB and SB: In the beginning of the school year, the principal should show leadership by calling a school assembly specifically to talk about bullying. A "zero-tolerance" policy should be set at that moment, and each student should have to sign a contract before they leave the auditorium showing that they are aware of and will abide by the rules.

The students should be taught what bullying behavior consists of, what the effects of bullying are on others, and what will happen to them if they are caught. Besides some form of punishment that will be harsh enough to set an example for others, anyone who bullies should be required to receive counseling from a school counselor and should be monitored by that counselor for a few months after an incident. Also, parents should be included in the counseling sessions so they can reinforce what the counselor advises.

All teachers should discuss bullying in each of their classrooms several times throughout the school year to remind students that the school takes it very seriously. Teachers should also encourage students to come to them if they encounter any problems.

Schools could also use creative, positive ways to prevent bullying by doing things like offering awards for acts of kindness to others, giving the student council permission to organize fun activities like "game day" during class time if the school goes a certain period without any incidences of bullying, and inviting guest speakers who have suffered from bullying to come and discuss their experience. This would help develop empathy and create an atmosphere of openness to talk about bullying. Students can also volunteer to form groups called "conflict managers" during lunchtime and recess to help kids resolve any conflicts that come up during those periods. The school counselor could train the conflict managers, and students could take turns being one so many kids have the experience.

TRC: Your mother received letters, too?

EB: Yes, some people actually did write to my mom to say thank you for raising caring children. Some people wrote to her because they asked for advice about how to a start a letter-writing project for their own kid who was being bullied.

I think my mom is proud of us that we took a stand against something we felt was wrong.

SB: My mom got some letters from people who praised her parenting. Some people also wrote to her because they wanted to know more information about why the schools didn't do more to stop the bullying, or if there are any laws in the country to punish bullies. My mom says that she is proud that we didn't just read the article and go on with our day, and that we tried to do something to help someone who is hurting.

TRC: Was your mother an inspiration to you growing up? What are some of the things she did (or didn’t do) to help you become the caring, responsible girls you are today?

EB: I told my mom in this year's Mother's Day card that she is my personal hero. She has a huge heart and is my role model for how to treat other people with respect and kindness. She was strict about this while we were growing up and made us write "lines" (a mini essay) if we were ever disrespectful. I thought it was annoying while I was doing it, but it did make us think about our actions and take responsibility for them. My mom also taught us to speak up for ourselves. I think that's part of what helped me feel confident about doing this project. I see how individuals can make a difference and how good it feels to improve the lives of others.

SB: My mother has always inspired me to be a better person. She always tries to do the best job she can and that makes me want to try my best. She is very kind and helpful to other people, and I see how much people like someone who is like that. Although she has never "grounded" me for things, she always made me write apology letters called "lines" where I had to explain what I did wrong and what I will do differently the next time. She would write me back and then I would write her back again. Sometimes we passed notes back and forth all night. I appreciated how she would apologize for her part of the situation and how it wasn't just seen as my fault. My mom is very loving and is always there for me.

TRC: Bill, one of the letter writers, talks this way about fear: “you do have the power to either allow fear in or to banish it, it’s your choice.” What are your thoughts about that? Do you agree?

EB: I do agree with Bill's statement. We don't always have a choice as to what happens to us in life, but we do have a choice about how we react to things. Reacting with fear is the easier route because it seems almost automatic. Reacting with strength is harder because it takes will power and conscious effort. Unless it is always your personality to be optimistic, being strong in a stressful situation can be difficult. Fear will usually seep in and that's OK, but you have to make the choice to deal with your fear in constructive ways, such as talking with other people and doing things that make you feel more in control. This could mean spending more time doing things you enjoy and are good at, or spending time with people who love you and value you for who you are. 

SB: I think it is impossible not to let fear in. Being afraid sometimes is natural. It's just that you cannot let it overcome you. If you can understand why certain things make you feel afraid, then you can also learn ways to avoid it or cope with it. Talking with your friends or your parents can help rather than keeping it inside. Making the choice to deal with fear is the bottom line.

TRC: Ripple effect: What lesson can young people learn about how possible positive change can be?

EB: I never expected this project to spread the way that it did. I think the "ripple effect" happened because so many people around the world could relate to bullying and wanted to share their own personal stories and wisdom, some even for the first time. I also think people were motivated to write out of the loving nature of their hearts. It was so inspiring to see how many caring and concerned people there are in the world. Olivia's mother, Kathleen, told us that the outpouring of support from the thousands of people who wrote Olivia was what helped lift her out of a deep depression and restore her faith in people. She said on "The Today Show" that she learned that "for every bad person there are 100 good people." This project has shown me how an individual can create positive change.

SB: I hope that our project and this book will keep the issue of bullying in the public eye. I saw how this project helped to improve Olivia's life and now I hope the book will continue that ripple effect and continue to improve other people's lives as well. I also hope the book motivates people to push for zero-tolerance bullying policies for school in their own communities.

TRC: If I must say, it sounds like you both get along really well as sisters. Why do you think this is? Do you have a favorite anecdote to share with readers about your sister?

EB: Sarah and I do get along well even though we have very different personalities. We spent a lot of time together when we were growing up playing with our American Girl dolls, singing and dancing to music, creating all kinds of games with our imaginations and traveling to other countries. I have so many great memories of all the things we used to do together, but I especially liked when she created this award for me called the "Best Sister" award. She was around seven years old and she put so much effort into writing it and designing it. She had my parents videotape the ceremony and she presented it to me with this long speech and a big hug. I was really proud to be her "best sister" --- even if I am her ONLY sister!

SB: Emily was a fun sister to grow up with because she has a huge imagination. We would spend hours and hours playing together, making up all these scenarios for our dolls and our stuffed animals. We never ran out of ideas and we were happy in our own little world. Some of my favorite times with her were when we were playing with the litter of six (real) puppies that our golden retriever gave birth to in our house. We didn't even know she was pregnant (long story!). Emily and I couldn't wait to get home from school, and when we came through the door, the puppies would go nuts barking and jumping inside their gate. We used to put on Spanish music and dance around with them in our arms. On the weekends we slept next to them. We videoed every stage of their development. Emily and I named them all and picked the one we eventually kept. It was one of the most exciting times of my life.

TRC: What are your individual and collective plans for your future? What will you two do next?

EB: My dream is to become a filmmaker, and I am thrilled that I will be going to NYU to study film this Fall. 

SB: I am a junior in high school and hope to study photography in college. I had the chance to go to Africa this summer and take photos on a safari. Maybe I'll be a famous photographer one day.