Worn down by constant bullying in school, Leanne Prendergast contemplated suicide. However, at the breaking point, the teenager turned to her mother, letting her know she was not happy.
“She told me I needed to write about what I was enduring,” said Prendergast. “She made me aware that I was not alone and I just couldn’t keep it to myself. At that point, I realized it was not about me and I made the decision that I was going to help others who were also being bullied and didn’t have the courage or voice to stand up against it.”
She and older sister Laurece co-authored Getting to Know Me, Love Our Lives: Girls Empowering Girls into Action.
An insightful look at the challenges teenage girls face, the book emerged as a tool for teachers, mothers and young girls.
Prendergast and her sister also co-founded Love Our Lives, which is an organization aimed at combatting bullying by offering female teens hope.
In the last few years, the York University student has presented anti-bullying workshops using her story as inspiration and collaborated with projects that address abuse towards women and children.
The recipient of the 2012 Victim Services Award of Distinction, Prendergast is among a select group of “Top 20 Under 20” Canadians recognized for exceptional leadership, innovation and achievement. The teenagers are honoured by the Royal Bank of Canada-sponsored national awards program administered by Youth in Motion, which is a charitable organization.
Born in England, Prendergast came to Canada at age seven in 2001. She said the bullying started soon after she enrolled in a local academy and most of it centred on her protruding eyes.
“It really took a toll on me to the point where I asked myself why I am not like everyone else,” she said. “Surgery was an option, but I was told that there was a 50-50 chance of me not seeing again. The constant teasing was something that I was not used to, so it was really hard to adjust to it.”
The winner of several community scholarships, including the Black Business & Professional Association, the John Brooks Community Foundation and the Future Aces, Prendergast said most of the bullying she faced occurred from Grade Two to Four.
“The school has good values which I believe in, but kids will be kids, and sometimes they really get cruel,” she said. “It was primarily the older guys in Grade Nine that did most of the teasing and at times it became physical.”
Prendergast recalled an incident that resulted in a hard fall on the ice while chasing a young man to retrieve an item he took from her backpack.
“This boy always used to pick on me, but I did not tell my parents for fear that they would go the school and make a big issue about it. One day, he went into my bag and took something and as I ran after him, I fell and hit my head. It was at that point that I had to let my parents know what was happening.”
Entering York two years ago to pursue social work studies, Prendergast has switched to nursing.
“I didn’t want anything to do with math or science because I am not good at those subjects,” she said. “I however want to help people and I am intrigued by the medical field and the opportunity it would give me to do that. I am going to learn science and I know it may take me longer to achieve my goal. It’s something I am willing to do.”
Selected through a comprehensive assessment process conducted by Order of Canada recipients, the winners were brought in from across the country to attend the awards breakfast last Thursday and a leadership summit.
They also attended leadership, branding and networking seminars and met the awards’ judges, partners and supporters.