Updated Dec 18, 4:41 PM; Posted Dec 18, 4:19 PM
By Special to NJ.com

Kidsbridge Tolerance Center in Ewing aims to turn bystanders into UPstanders by teaching empathy, empowerment and teamwork.
With bullying, cyberbullying and exclusion becoming an increasing problem today, children have to deal with prejudice, discrimination and name-calling on a constant basis.

Now more than ever, it is important for them to learn empathy, empowerment and teamwork — and that’s exactly what the folks at Kidsbridge Tolerance Center are doing for the kids and educators in Mercer County and beyond.

Founded in 1996, Kidsbridge is the only youth-dedicated tolerance center in the country. Through a network of volunteers, donors, philanthropies and its Board, the organization helps kids from pre-K through eighth grade by educating them about bullying, diversity appreciation and social-emotional skills such as respect, kindness and empathy.

“To teach these new skills, we focus on small-group discussions where kids are talking to each other face-to-face,” said Lynne Azarchi, executive director of Kidsbridge Tolerance Center. “Kids learn from each other and they learn from themselves, so we try to get every child to participate — even the quiet, shy ones.”

Through exploratory discussions, the staff and volunteers at Kidsbridge help the children understand their strengths and self-worth encouraging action as “UPstanders,” those who stand up for what is right, even if they are the only ones.

Kidsbridge focuses on small-group discussions to encourage all kids to participate and learn.

Developing kids into UPstanders is one of the biggest challenges, according to Azarchi, but it’s necessary to have these conversations starting at a younger age to change the culture surrounding bullying, bias and exclusion.

“We’re having wonderful dialogue as adults, but why can’t we start younger? Why can’t we start with 4 or 5 years old?” Azarchi said. “Bullying starts at age 3, so one of our premises is, ‘Hey preschool educators, let’s get started and create caring classrooms now (from pre-K through eighth grade).”

In addition to teaching preschool, Kidsbridge educates both elementary and middle school students. Either the kids can visit the Kidsbridge Tolerance Center or Kidsbridge can send its trained facilitators into school classrooms, to after-school activities, Scout groups and other youth group programs. All programs teach engaging lessons about bullying prevention to media literacy, from conflict resolution to mindfulness and everything in between.

Azarchi said that the Kidsbridge education committee and staff create these activities based on the latest research. Then, they test program success and outcomes through pre- and post-activity surveys and interviews given to both the students and teachers.

“Other anti-bullying programs might preach: ‘Do the right thing,’ but if you don’t evaluate programs and measure them, you don’t know whether youth are learning anything.”

Kidsbridge teachers and volunteers utilize fun and engaging activities to teach the kids important social emotional skills.
While assessment and evaluation make the Kidsbridge programs effective, Kidsbridge facilitators and volunteers know that these evidence-based programs are all part of the bigger picture: to foster the growth of an accepting and inclusive younger generation.

That’s certainly the goal for Melissa Riviello, the lead facilitator at Kidsbridge, who stated that using fun, interactive and engaging activities is the most effective way to teach new social emotional skills.

“Bullied children are suffering, so it’s important that we infuse them with helpful and realistic tactics,” Riviello said. “UPstander strategies are our main focus to teach students to stand up not only for themselves, but also for others. We also practice mindfulness skills to teach kids to de-stress, to better focus, and to pause before they act in person or online. It’s important for children and tweens to feel ready for the next bullying or safety challenge.”

It’s these skills and insights that have proven valuable for many of the youth. “We leave the teachers and counselors with post-program activities so that they can reinforce in the classroom what they have learned at Kidsbridge,” Riviello said.

One eighth-grader, named Susan, is just one of the 20,000 kids who have experienced an epiphany or gained knowledge from the programs that Kidsbridge offers.

“It affected me a lot, because all my life I have had problems with people making fun of me for many reasons,” Susan said. “And now I know that there are other people out there who are dealing with what I deal with. I don’t feel so alone.”

To donate to Kidsbridge Tolerance Center, visit its website at http://kidsbridgecenter.org/.

Hunter Hulbert