After recently seeing the trailer for the new Avenger's movie, my wife Roxana and I were inspired to bring bullied kids together to provide a platform where their voices could be heard. In the movie, the bully of the universe, Thanos, comes to take over the world, but the Avengers unite to destroy him.
Each Avenger has unique differences and strengths ranging from green and purple skin to being able to stop time. Without each superhero's strength and power, their efforts to defeat Thanos will be unsuccessful.
Similar to bullying, as we unite against it we can stop it.
After recently finishing the Justice League Kids series, we were contacted by the social media app Vero who offered to help us with any future projects we had. We told them about the bully project and they were in!
One day as I was thinking about the project I came across a video of Jackson Bezzant's dad.
Jackson was born with facial deformities and had been called 'monster' and 'freak' at school because of them. Jackson's dad made a video explaining his sons situation and in a way was reaching out for help. As I was watching, I felt as though he were speaking directly to me. I immediately messaged him on social media and told him I was doing a new project on bullying and wanted his son to be part of it.
In reality I hadn't set anything up yet and the project was all just in my head. The video was so powerful, however, that it sparked a fire in me to help in whatever way I could. Jackson Bezzant would soon become the Captain America of this amazing group of kids.
Jackson Bezzant as the leader of the Avengers!
Going into this project, my wife Roxana and I didn't know the heart breaking details of each kid's story. We didn't know that 12 year old Jackson Sommers (Dr. Strange ) had 35% of his brain missing and that kids pushed him down and spit on him at school because he walked and talked differently than they did.
We didn't know that Sydney Gerardis (Gamora) was secretly contemplating her suicide when her close friends told her they'd throw a party if she died.
We definitely didn't know the cruel words that were said to Grant Southam (Ironman) when he would walk past kids at school every day and they would yell "the retard is here!" while beating their chests.
This is what Grant's mom told us... "These kids were mentally torturing my son. I think the saddest part is that he couldn't even get away from it when he left school. At church, another group of boys in his class also decided that since everyone else was treating my son like garbage, they should join in the festivities. He came home from church one Sunday, once again, hysterical because some of the boys pulled his chair out from under him when he went to sit down. He smacked his head on the chair and began to cry while they all just laughed."
After seeing and hearing about all of these kid's stories, we knew we had to help these kids take a stand against bullying. We knew that if we could provide a platform where each kid could make a powerful statement against abuse, it would help unite others against it.
Once word spread about the project we were surprised to gain support from Jaxon Bieber! Jaxon wanted to make a stand against bullying in a powerful way so he and his dad, Jeremy, flew out to be part of the project.
Jaxon Bieber as the protector of the 9 realms of bullying!
So what's the point of a project like this? What does it actually do?
Bullying is about exclusion and the flawed thinking that there is only one way to be and act. What we wanted to accomplish in this project was to unite these amazing kids together and show that our differences are what make us strong. In the words of the P.T. Barnum..."No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else."
Read more below about each of the kid's stories...
Sydney's mom said, "Last year, Sydney was struggling with severe anxiety and depression and a couple of her girl friends at school starting saying insulting things to her daily and ignoring her on and off. One day Sydney asked them what would they do if she were to suddenly die? Little did Paul and I know until later, Sydney was considering dying because of this... and the girls said they’d be happy and throw a party."
Cole is gender fluid and has been bullied because of it. He wrote an award winning poem that describes best how he feels...
"He looks in the mirror, forced to wear a dress and a smile. The world doesn't accept him as himself, as a guy, but only as a girl. He gets beaten everyday for being different. Their words cut like razors, just like the ones he uses on his wrist to numb the pain. He comes home one day, face cut up, bruises all over, a black eye, and the words "dyke", and "freak" written on his arms in sharpie...all cause people find him different."
Just like Cole, Vision's identity is confused when he is originally created, until he finds his superpower! Vision is unique, calm and one of the most powerful Avengers. He is not phased by what others think of him. We thought Cole would be perfect as Vision!
Joshua's mom told us, "Alot of Joshua's bullying was due to his interests...being different than the average third grader. He loves world history and reading big books. Kids made fun of him because they think he is weird for liking this. There have been multiple times in the last 4 years when Joshua has been punched, spit at, clothes torn, food thrown at him during lunch, teased and made fun of because Joshua is seen as being different."
Josh decided to forgive and invite all of his bullies to his birthday party. They all confirmed they would be there but when it came time for the party not one of them showed up. For the last 3 years Joshua hasn't had a birthday party."
Mia's start in 8th grade was rough the first week into the new school year. She said "I was surrounded by my peers and threatened physical harm. My days that followed grew even more difficult as I was just tormented by a group of individuals on a daily basis. I faced belittling, mocking, threats, and being choked on campus. As a growing teen I wondered "what I am doing?, why me?"
"I am standing up, fighting back, making my voice heard. I would like others to know that bullying is serious and never be scared to reach out and tell others. Do not allow others to silence you and dismantle your self-confidence."
"Braiden has always had a bigger body frame" says his mom. "We have seen his doctors about our concerns thinking that it may be a thyroid issue and they referred us to a dietitian. He is more often now bullied for his weight. Kids make fun of him because he doesn't run as fast as everyone else or he runs out of breath quicker or can't jump as high. These children are very mean and Braiden has come home crying more times than I can count."
Jackson's mom, Katie Sommers, told us that Jackson is missing about 35% of his cerebellum. Due to this damage it has made things in Jackson's life more difficult than others. "When Jackson was in first grade, kids were noticing he was different. He looked normal, but his body didn't move the same as theirs and his personality wasn't the same as theirs. Another mom told me that her son said Jackson was being bullied. Kids would push him down and spit on him.
They wouldn't let him join in on their games. Jackson works hard and fights to get his body to do things some said were impossible, just like Dr. Strange!"
"Benson has been getting bullied by a fellow classmate. Our son has expressed to us many of the bullying tactics this kid has used, none of which you’d expect coming from a 1st grade student. He’s called him the F word and a 'loser' on several occasions as well as berating him in front of other classmates. When Benson woke up for school one morning he was in tears.
When I asked him what was wrong, he expressed that he didn’t want to go to school because his classmate told him "I wish you weren't alive."
Just like Spiderman, Benson has more to him than meets the eye!
Leila has struggled with depression and anxiety and has been seeing a therapist for help. Her mom told us,
"Unfortunately, when she was confiding with a friend about seeing a therapist, a boy in class overheard. He started teasing her relentlessly and started yelling it out to embarrass her. In turn, this caused her to feel alone and as if she was crazy. She really struggled because it seemed that no one else went to therapy or needed this kind of help."
Leila's message for others struggling is this..."It is not bad to go through therapy. You should not feel embarrassed. It is not bad to take medication. You have nothing to be ashamed of. Reach out for help. Help is there."
Jaron has been bullied because of his ethnicity. He has been made fun of and called 'gay' even though he isn't.
Jaron's mom told us of one time when Jaron was severely bullied..."One day I went to pick Jaron up from the daycare. Someone at the school proceeded to tell me that something happened at school. They didn't know exactly what had happened but Jaron was bleeding in his groin and we had not been advised. My child could hardly walk. He was in great pain. I tried to keep myself together. He told us he was playing on the rainbow looking monkey bars and as he was climbing, the same bully came and punched him in the leg causing him to fall on his groin."
Jaron wants to show that bullying is still a huge problem. He says that things can get better in the future if we all work hard to get rid of bullying.
Jaron and Drax are similar in that they don't ever give up even when down. They both get up and keep fighting!
Once Dorothy Gee heard about the bully project she wanted to stand up for all the kids who have been cyber bullied. Dorothy and her family (The Bucket List Family) are social media influencers. Surprisingly, they get cyber bullied quite often. Cyber bullying is a new faceless form of bullying that cuts deep. Dorothy wanted to be part of this project to stand up and be a voice for all kids who have been cyber bullied.
Dorothy and Black Widow are both fighting against bullying in every form!
Morisi is from Tanzania and came to the USA as a refugee. As he left his country because of terrorism he was sadly met with more bullying in his school. Morisi told us "Life in Tanzania was very hard. Lots of people died because there wasn’t enough medicine." He told us that when he first came to the USA he didn't speak english. A few people in the school made fun of him because of it and because of his accent.
"I think kids who get bullied shouldn’t say mean things back. They should tell an adult. Refugees are hard workers and want to learn. There is a lot to learn when refugees come to the US. Please be patient and nice to people who are learning English and don’t make fun of them."
Benjamin is 6 years old and has autism. However, he has the emotional and social processing skills
of a 3 year old. Autism makes it hard to make and keep friends for Benjamin. He has been bullied by others and even yelled at by adults that don't understand his autism. On one occasion Benjamin was so traumatized by an adult's intense anger towards him that he emotionally and mentally regressed by 4 months. All of the hard earned progress from the prior months was gone. This cost his family thousands of dollars and endless hours in therapy to recoup that progress.
Even though we might not understand someone and their struggles, bullying someone who is different is never acceptable.
"Miles has ADHD and has difficulties interacting socially" says his mom, "which makes it hard for him to make and keep friends. Kids at daycare and school have been mean to him to the point of physically harming him."
Miles wants to show other kids that they are not alone...that even if it makes them sad, they can be brave and be a friend to others. If everyone stands up to bullies, then the cycle of bullying can be stopped. Miles still speaks kindly of his bullies and is a true friend.
Miles and Hawkeye both bring people together as a team!
Behind the scenes...
The amazing costumes were designed and created by Julie Whiteley. She spent almost 3 months full time to get them done by the time of the shoot. A special thank you to VERO for making this project possible!
We split up the photo shoot into three days because of the size of the group. The majority of the kids live in Utah but are from 6 different continents!
Thanks to Vero for making this project possible!
Photographer and digital artist: Josh Rossi
Costumes: Julie Whiteley
Body Makeup: Versa Artistry
MUA: Eve Keener