— By Sharon Schlegel for The Times of Trenton, June 2, 2012

For 10 years now, Lynne Azarchi has been executive director of Kidsbridge, whose mission is to further tolerance, appreciate diversity, and end bullying among kids. But she says today’s youth have been desensitized to meanness and bullying by both “reality TV and the internet.”

Despite all the programs initiated by various organizations — and even a New Jersey state law requiring school districts to work harder to deal with bullying — Azarchi says it’s still on the increase and can’t just be legislated away.

Changing attitudes takes interactive discussion and examples, Azarchi says, which is what the amazing Kidsbridge Museum of Tolerance does, aiming its programs to be age-appropriate for kids from 3rd grade through 12th grade. Last week Azarchi showed me through the museum on The College of New Jersey’s Ewing campus.

It’s a colorful and upbeat place, with wall-size exhibits and sit-down stations kids move through, spending 15 minutes at each. Stations are set up to consider at kid level aspects of prejudice, conflict resolution and bullying.

I watched a group of 14 fourth- and fifth-graders from Dr. Albert Bean School in Pine Hill interact with Azarchi-trained TCNJ students or grads as their volunteer leaders. They visited exhibits titled Disabilities Awareness, Gender Stereotypes, Heroes, Peace Diner (about name-calling and how to handle it) and half a dozen others.

My favorite was School Bus Showdown, which starts with a video showing a young girl being excluded from a seat on the bus.

Under the guidance of volunteer Chelsea Carroll, the group talked about what the shunned child must have felt. Examples were given of what you could say or do, like offering her a seat, or saying, “Hey, that’s not okay.” Chelsea explained the difference between a “bystander,” which the kids rightly guessed does nothing but watch, and an “UPstander,” a Kidsbridge term meaning someone who offers support.

“An UPstander has to be strong, confident enough not to worry what people will think,” Chelsea said.

The kids got it, and agreed they want to be UPstanders, despite the risk of bucking the group.

In the Disabilities Awareness area, volunteer John Cherney used a soft puppet with braces to explore how a disabled person’s skills, not impairments, are what counts.
More than 2,000 kids visit the museum each year, but Azarchi would like to bring its lessons and discussions into school classrooms by having teachers visit and find out more about working against bullying and prejudice.

That, and her plans to continue Kidsbridge weekly workshops and summer leadership camp for urban kids, plus giving recognition to kids who do good works, all require funds. You can donate at tomorrow’s free two-mile Kidsbridge walk, called WALK2STOPBULLYING. It will be under way from 9 a.m. to noon., rain or shine.

Entertainment for kids is planned, and the museum will be open to tour.
What’s important, Lynne says, is not severely punishing or shaming bullies, “but teaching them, and all kids, empathy.” Makes sense to me.

More at Kidsbridgemuseum.com
Reach Sharon Schlegel at