A mentor who dealt with drug abuse is using filmmaking to help teens on the same path.
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Dignity Health 2017

Carl Lakari's teen years were consumed by drugs and alcohol.

Stuck in a rut and unable to engage with the world around him, Lakari had no creative outlets, no guidance, and no idea what to do. "What I didn’t get in high school was the support of caring adults and peers to help me find what my passion and gift is in the world," he remembers. He felt helpless and alone, so he turned to drugs and alcohol in search of solace.

Many young people all across the United States battle these same feelings and problems, so Lakari — now in long-term recovery — decided to help them.


He started Project Aware, a youth empowerment program that allows young people to express the tough issues they're dealing with through filmmaking.

Lakari (left) coordinates a production meeting with 2016 Summer Film Institute students. All images via Project Aware, used with permission.

The Maine-based program started in 2003 with cofounder Katey Branch. "We really wanted youth to have a choice or opportunity that I felt like I didn’t at that age," says Lakari.

The students cover a wide spectrum of themes in the films they work on — from bullying to self-harm to underage drinking to suicide. The projects are collaborative, and each student takes on the role they're drawn to the most. Some want to act, some want to direct, and some just want to be extras. But no matter what role they choose, they're all able to tackle important issues they care about in a creative and impactful way.

On set with the student crew and cast in Saco, Maine.

"Adolescents have an immense amount of energy and creativity they need to express," writes cofounder Branch. "It is a part of evolution for teenagers to push the edges. That is where innovation and new ideas emerge. When youth are given healthy channels and support, amazing things happen. When they are left out of healthy opportunities, that energy can get lost in sad, often tragic directions."

Cast members Tyler King and Emily Tierney in the film "April's Heart."

Project Aware is fostering a new generation of artists focused on telling powerful stories and creating meaningful change.

To date, the project has produced 12 short films and more than 20 public service announcements and has garnered hundreds of thousands of online views. By providing a healthy channel for creative expression, Project Aware is reimagining how young people can make their voices heard and inspire others to take action.

Students filming a documentary on racism at the University of New England over the summer.

"A lot of these young people don’t have a voice now," Lakari says. "Many of them may be struggling, labeled in some way. And this is sometimes their very first opportunity to get engaged and involved in leading and having a voice about a particular issue they’re concerned about. They get really excited about that."

The best part? They're sending an important message to other young people: You are not alone.

If all goes according to plan, Lakari hopes to see programs like his all across the country. "A program like Project Aware offers young people the opportunity to get connected with other young people that often share their story or part of their story," he says.

The cast and crew of "Reaching Out," a suicide prevention film to be released in 2017.

Faith-Ann Bishop, a 20-year-old film student in Los Angeles who wrote/cowrote four movies for Project Aware and was featured on the cover of Time magazine, sums it up beautifully in an email.

"It is our job to use our voices to help others find shelter in their thoughts," she writes. "Just one speech, one moment with someone can educate them, and reduce the stigma about mental disorders, suicide, drug use, or unhealthy relationships."

Hannah King in a scene from "A Better Place," which was written and directed by Faith-Ann Bishop.

"Trust yourself and your ability," she continues. "Never let others tell you your art or ideas are not worthy. Your voice is so beautifully unique and it will free you to use it."

Courtesy of Amita Swadhin
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In 2016, Amita Swadhin, a child of two immigrant parents from India, founded Mirror Memoirs to help combat rape culture. The national storytelling and organizing project is dedicated to sharing the stories of LGBTQIA+ Black, indigenous people, and people of color who survived child sexual abuse.

"Whether or not you are a survivor, 100% of us are raised in rape culture. It's the water that we're swimming in. But just as fish don't know they are in water, because it's just the world around them that they've always been in, people (and especially those who aren't survivors) may need some help actually seeing it," they add.

"Mirror Memoirs attempts to be the dye that helps everyone understand the reality of rape culture."

Amita built the idea for Mirror Memoirs from a theater project called "Undesirable Elements: Secret Survivors" that featured their story and those of four other survivors in New York City, as well as a documentary film and educational toolkit based on the project.

"Secret Survivors had a cast that was gender, race, and age-diverse in many ways, but we had neglected to include transgender women," Amita explains. "Our goal was to help all people who want to co-create a world without child sexual abuse understand that the systems historically meant to help survivors find 'healing' and 'justice' — namely the child welfare system, policing, and prisons — are actually systems that facilitate the rape of children in oppressed communities," Amita continues. "We all have to explore tools of healing and accountability outside of these systems if we truly want to end all forms of sexual violence and rape culture."

Amita also wants Mirror Memoirs to be a place of healing for survivors that have historically been ignored or underserved by anti-violence organizations due to transphobia, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy.

Amita Swadhin

"Hearing survivors' stories is absolutely healing for other survivors, since child sexual abuse is a global pandemic that few people know how to talk about, let alone treat and prevent."

"Since sexual violence is an isolating event, girded by shame and stigma, understanding that you're not alone and connecting with other survivors is alchemy, transmuting isolation into intimacy and connection."

This is something that Amita knows and understands well as a survivor herself.

"My childhood included a lot of violence from my father, including rape and other forms of domestic violence," says Amita. "Mandated reporting was imposed on me when I was 13 and it was largely unhelpful since the prosecutors threatened to incarcerate my mother for 'being complicit' in the violence I experienced, even though she was also abused by my father for years."

What helped them during this time was having the support of others.

"I'm grateful to have had a loving younger sister and a few really close friends, some of whom were also surviving child sexual abuse, though we didn't know how to talk about it at the time," Amita says.

"I'm also a queer, non-binary femme person living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and those identities have shaped a lot of my life experiences," they continue. "I'm really lucky to have an incredible partner and network of friends and family who love me."

"These realizations put me on the path of my life's work to end this violence quite early in life," they said.

Amita wants Mirror Memoirs to help build awareness of just how pervasive rape culture is. "One in four girls and one in six boys will be raped or sexually assaulted by the age of 18," Amita explains, "and the rates are even higher for vulnerable populations, such as gender non-conforming, disabled, deaf, unhoused, and institutionalized children." By sharing their stories, they're hoping to create change.

"Listening to stories is also a powerful way to build empathy, due to the mirror neurons in people's brains. This is, in part, why the project is called Mirror Memoirs."

So far, Mirror Memoirs has created an audio archive of BIPOC LGBTQI+ child sexual abuse survivors sharing their stories of survival and resilience that includes stories from 60 survivors across 50 states. This year, they plan to record another 15 stories, specifically of transgender and nonbinary people who survived child sexual abuse in a sport-related setting, with their partner organization, Athlete Ally.

"This endeavor is in response to the more than 100 bills that have been proposed across at least 36 states in 2021 seeking to limit the rights of transgender and non-binary children to play sports and to receive gender-affirming medical care with the support of their parents and doctors," Amita says.

In 2017, Mirror Memoirs held its first gathering, which was attended by 31 people. Today, the organization is a fiscally sponsored, national nonprofit with two staff members, a board of 10 people, a leadership council of seven people, and 500 members nationally.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, they created a mutual aid fund for the LGBTQIA+ community of color and were able to raise a quarter-million dollars. They received 2,509 applications for assistance, and in the end, they decided to split the money evenly between each applicant.

While they're still using storytelling as the building block of their work, they're also engaging in policy and advocacy work, leadership development, and hosting monthly member meetings online.

For their work, Amita is one of Tory's Burch's Empowered Women. Their donation will go to Mirror Memoirs to help fund production costs for their new theater project, "Transmutation: A Ceremony," featuring four Black transgender, intersex, and non-binary women and femmes who live in California.

"I'm grateful to every single child sexual survivor who has ever disclosed their truth to me," Amita says. "I know another world is possible, and I know survivors will build it, together with all the people who love us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Photo by R.D. Smith on Unsplash

Gem is living her best life.

If you've ever dreamed of spontaneously walking out the door and treating yourself a day of pampering at a spa without even telling anyone, you'll love this doggo who is living your best life.

According to CTV News, a 5-year-old shepherd-cross named Gem escaped from her fenced backyard in Winnipeg early Saturday morning and ended up at the door of Happy Tails Pet Resort & Spa, five blocks away. An employee at the spa saw Gem at the gate around 6:30 a.m. and was surprised when they noticed her owners were nowhere to be seen.

"They were looking in the parking lot and saying, 'Where's your parents?'" said Shawn Bennett, one of the co-owners of the business.

The employee opened the door and Gem hopped right on in, ready and raring to go for her day of fun and relaxation.

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When a pet is admitted to a shelter it can be a traumatizing experience. Many are afraid of their new surroundings and are far from comfortable showing off their unique personalities. The problem is that's when many of them have their photos taken to appear in online searches.

Chewy, the pet retailer who has dedicated themselves to supporting shelters and rescues throughout the country, recognized the important work of a couple in Tampa, FL who have been taking professional photos of shelter pets to help get them adopted.

"If it's a photo of a scared animal, most people, subconsciously or even consciously, are going to skip over it," pet photographer Adam Goldberg says. "They can't visualize that dog in their home."

Adam realized the importance of quality shelter photos while working as a social media specialist for the Humane Society of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"The photos were taken top-down so you couldn't see the size of the pet, and the flash would create these red eyes," he recalls. "Sometimes [volunteers] would shoot the photos through the chain-link fences."

That's why Adam and his wife, Mary, have spent much of their free time over the past five years photographing over 1,200 shelter animals to show off their unique personalities to potential adoptive families. The Goldbergs' wonderful work was recently profiled by Chewy in the video above entitled, "A Day in the Life of a Shelter Pet Photographer."