Empowering Our Youth

I was born with a facial birth defect and know what its like to go through those middle school years feeling “different” and less than perfect. Many kids, particularly in middle school, struggle with feeling “different”, not feeling good enough or pretty enough, not liking the size of their body, or not feeling smart enough. There is something they don’t like about themselves, often making them feel “less than” their peers. Research tells us they do not necessarily share these fears or concerns with their parents or teachers, therefore, our assumption that they are being supported about these feelings of difference is generally not accurate.

While I grew up teased daily and not feeling good enough, I ultimately found that my passion for dance and intense curiosity gave me the inner strength I needed. I got my MBA from Columbia University and also became an aerialist.

I gave a TEDx talk and shared my story of what it was like to grow up with a birth defect. A young girl who heard my talk wrote, “At school I am often made fun of by the other kids. Thank you for teaching me how to be strong and find a passion to help me feel better.” That was when I realized sharing my story and encouraging kids to find a passion to get through the tough times had an impact.

My program will encourage the kids to find their passion and their voice - the true expression of who they are. By helping them find their passion they will become stronger and feel empowered, allowing them to deal with the feelings with which they struggle.  

 My Background: I grew up with a craniofacial condition that required me to have twelve surgeries and years of speech therapy. My upper lip was split in half, open all the way up to my nose. Also, part of one side of my nose was missing. This resulted in an extreme amount of bullying and teasing before my twelve surgeries were complete. I know what it’s like to feel like an outsider, alone in the world as a kid. If there had been an open conversation about feeling different and someone had encouraged me to find something I was intensely passionate about I would have gained confidence and believed in myself at a point in my life when I felt all alone. I can help kids accomplish this. They do not have to have a birth defect in order to feel alone or “different”. My story exemplifies how to get through the struggles almost all middle school kids feel.

Here is a link to an article I wrote recently on learning to love all the parts of ourselves, even the imperfect parts. 


 The Huffington Post tells part of my story of how I dealt with bullying and feeling “different” by finding a pursuit, in my case aerial silks, for which I was extremely passionate.


Recently I gave a TEDx talk to middle school students that focused on bullying and finding one’s passion to help find your voice and your strength. The feedback from the teachers and the students confirmed that the kids deeply related to my speech. My program is based on my TEDx talk, "A Girls Passion".  In my program, I will interact with the students LIVE which would have a much greater impact on them than just watching the TEDx talk video. Additionally, they would participate in an experiential workshop with me, allowing my program to leave a more memorable impression on them. My TEDx talk can be viewed here.


I gave presentations to a few different age groups, including to a class of 2nd graders (I'm the big kid in the middle of the picture).

Afterwards they made cards for me, sharing what they learned from hearing my story. Even at such a young age, they understood the message, was affected by it and was able to apply it to their own experience.

The Project– Visiting 12 middle schools in my county, I already have interest expressed from 4 schools, with a long-term goal of expanding the program to adjacent counties and subsequently a nationwide reach. The program would be broken down as follows:

1.  Share my Story - Addressing the entire student body will share my story of overcoming extreme bullying, what I endured and how I felt. All kids will be able to relate to feeling different, even if they don’t have a facial deformity like I had. Powerful stories have great impact when shared with kids. My story will prompt their thinking about their own feelings and will help them realize they are not alone.

2.  Finding my Passion and how it helped me- explain how finding my passion for aerial silks gave me confidence which subsequently helped me find my voice and my power.

3.  Aerial Performance – give an aerial performance, my passion that helped me find my voice, to capture the kids and draw them in. Even though their passion will be different, seeing a performance after hearing my story will have great impact and make a memorable impression on them, leaving them with the strong desire to find something they love to do, something that makes them feel strong and confident.

4.  Workshop – through discussion and writing exercises I will lead them to explore ways in which they feel “different” or struggle. Then we will have a discussion that will help them uncover what type of expression (passion) resonates with them – one that will ultimately help them find their voice.

5.  Experiential Empowerment piece - an opportunity for the kids to try the fun, confidence building aerial silks moves they saw on stage. This will give them the chance to experience what passion helped me find my voice. By participating in what “the lady on stage did” the message will have more of a lasting impact on the kids. It has been proven that when a speaker integrates the physicality of a story the listener remembers it better. I currently teach kids from age 7 to adults - whatever their shape or size I can get them into several incredible picture perfect poses the very first time they work with me. (I have insurance coverage for teaching aerials and each child would sign a release form with the school). Below is a day of me letting students try what I did on stage. It made the program very memorable for them.

6.  Follow-up discussion - encourage the kids to explore what will make them feel strong and empowered and how that passion can give them their own voice.

It is my goal to take this program to schools, both public and private, as well as to organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club. I find that all types of kids, privileged and non-privileged, deal with feelings of not fitting in or feeling like they are not good enough. I already have four schools, as well as the Stand Up Foundation (www.standupfoundationfl.org), a mentoring program for adolescents and teens to be supported in their social and emotional health, interested in participating.

 My program has the potential for a huge impact on the lives of many kids. If we help kids feel empowered we can transform their path. Even helping just one kid can have a huge impact. If you see the value in this endeavor please join in supporting the effort to reach kids in this new way. Help me go out to middle schools to interact with children to get them to find their passion, their voice, and therefore, their strength. Having personally gone through the experience of feeling different and not having the resources to deal with those feelings I have a passion to help kids build support for themselves.

Use of Funds
Each school visit will run 2 days in order to have breakout groups (most likely by homeroom) small enough for the workshop and the experiential piece.

Each visit will consist of the following expenses:

Aerial rig rental for the experiential portion ($350 per day x 2 days)= $700

An aerial instructor to assist me ($300 per day x 2 days at each school)= $600

Total Expense per school visit = $1300

I will start out locally to keep expenses low, but eventually, I will travel to offer the program in schools nationwide. Additional expense for travel will be required at that point.

I would like to raise funds to support the first 12 local school visits ($15,600) so I can quickly get traction and show success. With this amount of funding, I can reach 5,000 kids. Following the initial twelve schools I can branch out to other school districts.  

Please help me gather the resources to support making a difference in kids’ lives. If we empower children early in their life it could change their trajectory.

THANK YOU - Besides being forever grateful to you for partnering with me to get this project off the ground I can send you updates on the project, including where I’m speaking, and stories of the kids and how they benefitted from the program. Thank you for supporting this program and having an impact on children’s lives!
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Tina Marie Reine 
West Palm Beach, FL