Waking up at 4 a.m. on a Thursday morning, Dominic Quarles hopped on the Tri-Rail in Fort Lauderdale and took two buses to Florida International University’s Modesto Maidique Campus for an experience that changed his life forever.
Quarles, 17, was among 100 other students who attended the National Voices for Equality, Education and Enlightenment’s (NVEEE) inaugural peace ambassador leadership conference which took place July 17-20.
“It was really emotional,” said the aspiring fashion designer, who spoke about his identity struggles with his sexual orientation and being born HIV positive.
NVEEE was founded in October 2009 and aims to prevent bullying, violence and suicide.
The conference was designed to empower students through leadership and social skills and serve as a support system for students ages 14 to 21. The four-day event began each morning at 8:30 a.m. and ended about 9 p.m.
“They were there because they wanted the information. They didn’t want a lot of breaks,” said Jowharah Sanders, founder of NVEEE. “They wanted intense conversations.”
For Lauren Bruss, 17, that couldn’t be more true. The senior class president at Bayside High School traveled from Melbourne, hoping this conference can provide insight on her life.
“I’ve always known that I want to help people,” said Bruss. “I’m hoping stuff like this is going to drive me to where I want to go.”
Although she has never been bullied herself, Bruss has seen the repercussions of it.
“Two of my friends have committed suicide, so that’s a big part of my life,” said Bruss. Through this conference, she has learned about the huge impact people can have on each other. “We talked about how if you meet 10 people and you impact their lives in some way, and they change the lives of 10 other people, eventually the entire world will be changed.”
For Danielle Mazzuchi, 20, a college student from Northern Virginia studying elementary education, this concept is crucial.
“I love seeing a change,” Mazzuchi said. “I think it’s so important for the younger generations.”
Mazzuchi, a pacific islander, was heavily discriminated throughout her school life and aims to incorporate acceptance and cultural awareness into her future classrooms.
“I don’t want to just teach who fought the civil war,” Mazzuchi said. “I want to teach why and why it’s so important.”
She describes her experience at the conference as eye opening and powerful. She vividly recalls the first day where students shared their personal stories. They spoke of experiences with gang violence, sexual assault, harassment and suicide.
“There were times when we were all together and there was not a dry eye in the room,” Mazzuchi said. “We hadn’t even been there for 24 hours.”
The group had started to feel like a family from the very beginning. By the end of the weekend, students were calling Sanders “mom” and Grisel Oliva, a board member of NVEEE, “dad.”
This is why Jacob Carpenter, 18, a recent graduate from Mavericks High-North Broward in Pompano Beach has been a peace ambassador for NVEEE for the past four years.
“I’m here for help and support,” said Carpenter, who was recruited to the organization after he raised money for Josie Lou Ratley, a 15-year-old girl who was assaulted in 2010.
Carpenter grew up in a rough home life and was heavily bullied in school. He was teased constantly and kids did not want to be associated with him because of his sexual orientation. There were instances where he ended up in the hospital from heavy beatings.
“You never know what people go through, they should act like everyone is equal,” Carpenter said.
Sanders, who had many traumatic experiences growing up, wants to teach everyone that they are not victims.
“Things happen to you; they are not you,” Sanders said. “You get to choose from this day forth who you want to be.”