On her first day of high school, Valerie Weisler was mercilessly mocked and taunted for being shy.
“A group of girls circulated a rumor that I was mute and even slipped notes into my locker telling me to kill myself,” said the high school senior.
But a chance encounter with another young man being bullied changed her path, and transformed what could have been a tragic situation into a spark of inspiration.
“I went up to him and said, ‘You matter,’” she described. “I told him we’re both going to be fine.” Weisler later found out that the young man had been entertaining thoughts of suicide — her words changed his mind.
For Weisler, the experience “turned on a light” and awoke her passion for “validating others.” Using her babysitting money, she founded the Validation Project, today an international organization that works to empower teens by matching them with mentors at corporations such as Google and the NFL. With 900 chapters in 100 countries, the online support network connects more than 6000 troubled teens with mentors who help them polish a skill, such as coding, cooking or photography, and then devote it to tackling issues such as homelessness, domestic violence, inequality and special needs.
“I’ve found that adults need validation just as much as kids,” said the budding CEO, who is in frequent communication with representatives from the United Nations, State Department and White House to continue expanding her project globally. “Having a teen to teach about what you do reminds adults of why they matter.”
Building the organization helped Weisler fully accept herself. As a sophomore in high school, she came out to her friends and family as gay. “I took a deep breath and told my secret — if I wanted to truly love myself, I had to face myself for who I am.”
Weisler’s passion for activism was cultivated from a young age through volunteering in her Jewish community. She found a support system at United Synagogue Youth, and eventually took up a position on the youth group’s international board. She also attended Camp Ramah in Nyack (“Shout out!”) since third grade.
“I grew up learning about tikkun olam,” she said. “It made me look at the world and say, ‘What can I do to fix it?’”
Dog selfies: Weisler loves dogs — and she likes to take pictures with them. To date, she has taken over 450 selfies with different cute pups, which she posts on her Instagram account.