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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."

Moricz was banned from speaking up about LGBTQ topics. He found a brilliant workaround.

Senior class president Zander Moricz was given a fair warning: If he used his graduation speech to criticize the “Don’t Say Gay” law, then his microphone would be shut off immediately.

Moricz had been receiving a lot of attention for his LGBTQ activism prior to the ceremony. Moricz, an openly gay student at Pine View School for the Gifted in Florida, also organized student walkouts in protest and is the youngest public plaintiff in the state suing over the law formally known as the Parental Rights in Education law, which prohibits the discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K-3.

Though well beyond third grade, Moricz nevertheless was also banned from speaking up about the law, gender or sexuality. The 18-year-old tweeted, “I am the first openly-gay Class President in my school’s history–this censorship seems to show that they want me to be the last.”

However, during his speech, Moricz still delivered a powerful message about identity. Even if he did have to use a clever metaphor to do it.

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Leah Menzies/TikTok

Leah Menzies had no idea her deceased mother was her boyfriend's kindergarten teacher.

When you start dating the love of your life, you want to share it with the people closest to you. Sadly, 18-year-old Leah Menzies couldn't do that. Her mother died when she was 7, so she would never have the chance to meet the young woman's boyfriend, Thomas McLeodd. But by a twist of fate, it turns out Thomas had already met Leah's mom when he was just 3 years old. Leah's mom was Thomas' kindergarten teacher.

The couple, who have been dating for seven months, made this realization during a visit to McCleodd's house. When Menzies went to meet his family for the first time, his mom (in true mom fashion) insisted on showing her a picture of him making a goofy face. When they brought out the picture, McLeodd recognized the face of his teacher as that of his girlfriend's mother.

Menzies posted about the realization moment on TikTok. "Me thinking my mum (who died when I was 7) will never meet my future boyfriend," she wrote on the video. The video shows her and McLeodd together, then flashes to the kindergarten class picture.

“He opens this album and then suddenly, he’s like, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God — over and over again,” Menzies told TODAY. “I couldn’t figure out why he was being so dramatic.”

Obviously, Menzies is taking great comfort in knowing that even though her mother is no longer here, they can still maintain a connection. I know how important it was for me to have my mom accept my partner, and there would definitely be something missing if she wasn't here to share in my joy. It's also really incredible to know that Menzies' mother had a hand in making McLeodd the person he is today, even if it was only a small part.

@speccylee

Found out through this photo in his photo album. A moment straight out of a movie 🥲

♬ iris - 🫶

“It’s incredible that that she knew him," Menzies said. "What gets me is that she was standing with my future boyfriend and she had no idea.”

Since he was only 3, McLeodd has no actual memory of Menzies' mother. But his own mother remembers her as “kind and really gentle.”

The TikTok has understandably gone viral and the comments are so sweet and positive.

"No the chills I got omggg."

"This is the cutest thing I have watched."

"It’s as if she remembered some significance about him and sent him to you. Love fate 😍✨"

In the caption of the video, she said that discovering the connection between her boyfriend and her mom was "straight out of a movie." And if you're into romantic comedies, you're definitely nodding along right now.

Menzies and McLeodd made a follow-up TikTok to address everyone's positive response to their initial video and it's just as sweet. The young couple sits together and addresses some of the questions they noticed pop up. People were confused that they kept saying McLeodd was in kindergarten but only 3 years old when he was in Menzies' mother's class. The couple is Australian and Menzies explained that it's the equivalent of American preschool.

They also clarified that although they went to high school together and kind of knew of the other's existence, they didn't really get to know each other until they started dating seven months ago. So no, they truly had no idea that her mother was his teacher. Menzies revealed that she "didn't actually know that my mum taught at kindergarten."

"I just knew she was a teacher," she explained.

She made him act out his reaction to seeing the photo, saying he was "speechless," and when she looked at the photo she started crying. McLeodd recognized her mother because of the pictures Menzies keeps in her room. Cue the "awws," because this is so cute, I'm kvelling.

Photo by Heather Mount on Unsplash

Actions speak far louder than words.

It never fails. After a tragic mass shooting, social media is filled with posts offering thoughts and prayers. Politicians give long-winded speeches on the chamber floor or at press conferences asking Americans to do the thing they’ve been repeatedly trained to do after tragedy: offer heartfelt thoughts and prayers. When no real solution or plan of action is put forth to stop these senseless incidents from occurring so frequently in a country that considers itself a world leader, one has to wonder when we will be honest with ourselves about that very intangible automatic phrase.

Comedian Anthony Jeselnik brilliantly summed up what "thoughts and prayers" truly mean. In a 1.5-minute clip, Jeselnik talks about victims' priorities being that of survival and not wondering if they’re trending at that moment. The crowd laughs as he mimics the actions of well-meaning social media users offering thoughts and prayers after another mass shooting. He goes on to explain how the act of performatively offering thoughts and prayers to victims and their families really pulls the focus onto the author of the social media post and away from the event. In the short clip he expertly expresses how being performative on social media doesn’t typically equate to action that will help victims or enact long-term change.

Of course, this isn’t to say that thoughts and prayers aren’t welcomed or shouldn’t be shared. According to Rabbi Jack Moline "prayer without action is just noise." In a world where mass shootings are so common that a video clip from 2015 is still relevant, it's clear that more than thoughts and prayers are needed. It's important to examine what you’re doing outside of offering thoughts and prayers on social media. In another several years, hopefully this video clip won’t be as relevant, but at this rate it’s hard to see it any differently.