Two local 18-year-olds — Valerie Weisler of New City, N.Y., and Zachary Stier of Paramus — went to San Francisco in August to accept a $36,000 national Diller Teen Tikkun Olam award from the Helen Diller Family Foundation in recognition of their “workable solutions to critical issues facing society today.”
Ms. Weisler founded the Validation Project, an international nonprofit organization that empowers teens to gain self-confidence, overcome bullying and other personal obstacles, and tap into their talents to work for social justice.
The idea grew out of an incident in high school, when she came across a student being bullied and said to him, “You matter!” His response, that her words “validated” him, planted the seeds for her mission, which has grown to encompass chapters in 105 countries.
Participants in the Validation Project partner with mentors in their field of interest and then design campaigns to have a positive impact on their communities. The Validation Project also incorporates a “kindness curriculum” that has replaced government-led anti-bullying courses in nearly 1,000 schools across the globe.
So far, 6,000 teens have gone through the program, 38,500 teens have joined chapters, 3,000 adults have become mentors, and $40,000 in goods and services have been donated in support of the project. The organization’s operations are handled by 1,500 people globally.
Ms. Weisler, who is now a pre-law freshman majoring in international studies and education at Muhlenberg College, has been recognized by the White House, the U.N., the State Department, the NFL, Seventeen magazine, and United Synagogue Youth. She recorded a Ted Talk to spread her message of kindness and validation even further.
Jewish values inform her work “100 percent,” she said.
“I was in USY for seven years, serving on its international social action/tikkun olam board. I also am an alum of Camp Ramah Nyack, and now I am a counselor for six-year-old girls there,” she said. “My organization started because of how integral tikkun olam was in my life from Ramah and USY. Everything we do is connected to the Jewish values I hold close to my heart: kindness, selflessness, stepping out of your comfort zone.”
She credits her mother, Bonnie Weisler, “for our talks at the kitchen table brainstorming ideas,” and to her mentor, Jessica Abo, “for being such a strong support system, personally and professionally.”
The Diller award is going toward her education for now. “Later on, I have some ideas up my sleeve for how we will use it for The Validation Project,” she added.
Ms. Weisler, who experienced bullying firsthand when she was a child, said that her friends are patient with her “rants about social justice” and allow her the space to be a kid as well as a CEO. Her message to other teens is to “listen to the people who tell you, ‘You can’t do that,’ and go prove them wrong. Use their disbelief in your abilities to go kick some butt and shake up the world.”
Mr. Stier’s initiative, YMath, stemmed from his enjoyment of tutoring fellow students in math when he was in middle school.
“I was really amazed by the difference that the individual attention made,” he said. When I got to high school, there was no program that offered this kind of help. There were plenty of private tutors, but they were so expensive and not accessible to everyone. I decided to provide free tutoring to people who could not afford a private tutor.”
About 50 YMath tutors work one on one with students every Sunday at the Bergen County Academies — Mr. Stier’s alma mater — and at the Garfield YMCA. So far, the tutors have invested 4,000 hours helping more than 200 students, working from personalized teaching plans tailored to meet every student’s individual needs. More advanced students work with the tutor volunteers to discover new applications for their skills and to prepare for math leagues and competitions.
In 2014, Mr. Stier was named Youth Volunteer of the Year by the New Jersey YMCA State Alliance. Now a freshman planning to major in math at Princeton University, he hopes to expand YMath to additional locations throughout the country.
“Running YMath is an important part of my schedule, and it is a tremendously satisfying part of each week,” he said. “The feedback from the students and parents makes running the program rewarding and I am excited to continue to see the program thrive and hopefully grow.”
Mr. Stier notes his gratitude to the principal of the Bergen County Academies, Russell Davis, for offering to host the program when the first location he found became unavailable, and to Rob Avolio of Avolio & Hanlon, who provides pro bono legal advice.
“Several teachers at BCA — Dr. Judith Pinto, Mrs. Carol Zepatos, and Dr. Kenneth Mayers — believed in the program and provided invaluable support from day one,” he said. His brother, Ken, also is involved in YMath, and his parents, Stacy and Mitchell, supervise the tutoring sessions.
Mr. Stier said that five years ago, for his bar mitzvah project, he provided the items on the “wish list” of the math department at a charter school in Newark. “In addition, in lieu of flowers, I had plants as centerpieces, which we then donated to Hillel Academy in Passaic, a school my maternal great-great-grandfather founded and with which my great-grandparents felt a strong connection,” he said.
“Although I am more culturally than religiously observant, I feel proud of and connected to my heritage,” he continued. “YMath embodies the spirit of Judaism and tikkun olam. It exemplifies that no matter how young or old we are, and no matter what we perceive as our own skill set, we can help other people and make a positive difference in someone’s life.”
He is using the Diller award toward tuition and toward materials for his tutoring program.
In all, 14 young leaders from across the nation were selected by committees of educators and community leaders to receive 2016 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards. The prizes were presented at San Francisco’s Four Seasons Hotel after a weekend-long networking and mentoring spree, during which teens exchanged ideas with peers and got a chance to meet Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award alumni.
“The Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards program provides the opportunity to recognize and support the next generation of youth committed to making positive changes in the world,” Jackie Safier said. Ms. Safier, the daughter of philanthropist Helen Diller, is president of the Helen Diller Family Foundation, which has awarded the prize since 2007.
“We are so pleased to be able to acknowledge the leadership and passion of these 14 spectacular teens,” she said. “They are now part of the foundation’s growing network of 84 young change-makers.
“We all look forward to seeing what they do next.”
Nominations for the 2017 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards can be submitted online at www.dillerteenawards.org.