Laura Talmus and Ace Smith watched their daughter struggle with loneliness in middle school. Now, more than ever, they’re focused on helping kids make connections and find a sense of belonging.
On November 7, the public will have an opportunity to boost the self-esteem of struggling students nationwide while eating at some of San Francisco’s top restaurants. The upcoming culinary event, titled We Dine Together, benefits nonprofit Beyond Differences, which has helped middle schoolers fight social isolation through a variety of programs since it was founded a decade ago. At press time, more than a dozen restaurants had signed up to host diners, including hotspots like China Live, Wayfare Tavern, Lord Stanley, Delfina and Boulevard. (Tickets are available at beyonddifferences.org.) Beyond Differences is the brainchild of long-time nonprofit executive Laura Talmus and her political adviser husband Ace Smith. The idea came to them soon after they tragically lost their teenage daughter, Lili, in October 2009 when she died in her sleep. As Talmus explains, Lili had become removed from friends in middle school, and it had a profoundly negative impact on her life.
“Lili seemed OK in fifth grade, but by sixth grade we started noticing that she was feeling something beyond left out,” remembers Talmus. “She had no plans after school or on weekends. I’d try to help by creating playdates for her, but no one was reciprocating.”
Lili wasn’t teased or bullied in school; she was invisible. At the time, the conversation around social isolation and its life-altering effects wasn’t often discussed in the media. With the exception of a few articles about elderly isolation, Talmus hadn’t heard much about the concept. By seventh grade, things were getting especially hard for Lili.
She didn’t want to go to school,” says Talmus. “She’d call me at work from the girl’s bath-room asking me to pick her up. She’d say that no one wanted to eat lunch with her, and I’d suggest she eat in the library and read. I remember her telling me, ‘No, Mom, I don’t want to. I’m a loser. I go to the library every day.’”
Talmus and Smith found an alternative solution and decided to homeschool Lili for the remainder of seventh grade and all of eighth grade. For ninth grade, Lili decided to go to a competitive prep boarding school in Iowa. She was thrilled with the new arrangement.
Seven weeks after starting, she was gone. “We think Lili died from a seizure that turned off her brain and heart all at once,” says Talmus, adding that Lili was born with Apert syndrome, a genetic form of craniosynostosis. “It was a tragedy for our family.”
In Talmus’ speech at Lili’s memorial service, she talked about how Lili had gone to boarding school to find the friends and a sense of community that she just couldn’t find at home. She wasn’t pointing fingers, just stating the facts. This comment inspired those in attendance to talk with their children about the issue of feeling left out in school. About six months after the service, Talmus, Smith and eight families who’d known Lili created an assembly program for a local middle school to talk about social isolation. Students addressed a crowd of 200 to speak about their experiences, creating a space for peers in the audience to share as well.
“I remember standing in the back of the room and thinking, ‘Oh my God, everyone knows what this is, every kid in this room can relate to what Lili went through,’” says Talmus.
Tne assembly turned into many, and pretty soon a nonprofit was created to take donations to help students. Now, 10 years on, Beyond Differences is a nationally recognized organization that offers a comprehensive, free curriculum for teachers in more than 6,000 schools to help end students’ loneliness. Among them is a program called No One Eats Alone, which teaches students how to make friends at lunch; another, Know Your Classmates, teaches students to recognize stereotypes and celebrate diverse backgrounds; Be Kind Online is a program designed to create inclusive communities online.
The organization is growing rapidly and entirely funded by donations. To Smith, its mission is wide-reaching and timely. “With so much divisive rhetoric coming from our current president, students are feeling like they don’t belong,” he says. “Our free programs help students find common ground and connect, and to stand up for each other.”
George Chen, executive chef and owner of the award-winning China Live, a culinary destination in Chinatown, is donating a table at his fine dining restaurant Eight Tables for We Dine Together largely because he personally identifies with the struggles that marginalized Lili in school. But instead of feeling invisible, Chen was a target of racist bullies.
“Middle school is such a formative time in a person’s life. What Beyond Differences is doing is incredibly important. If we can teach children to see their differences as an asset, especially at such a fragile age, it can really change lives.”
We Dine Together: Thursday, Nov. 7, 5:00 p.m. – 9:30 p.m. at 16 top-tier Bay Area restaurants. Tickets ($250–$500) available at wedinetogether.com.