Veronica Kole – 18 years old, with a substantial singing, dancing, and songwriting career – has maintained a Facebook page for years. Over time, she amassed many school-aged fans who consistently messaged her for advice about music, life, and love.
One of her “regulars” was a 13-year-old girl named Anna. When Kole was a senior, Anna would message her every day. One day, Anna messaged her 20 times in rapid succession, but as Kole was in school, she was unable to respond until later that evening.
When she signed on to Facebook, she was told by Anna’s friend that Anna had gone missing that evening and had taken her own life. She had been incessantly bullied by friends after breaking up with her boyfriend and couldn’t take it anymore.
“I went insane trying to find out if it was really true, and when I did, I was devastated,” the young Kole said in an interview Tuesday. “At first I beat myself up constantly and blamed myself. I tortured myself about what I should have, would have, could have done had I known, but eventually I realized that wasn’t helping either of us.”
Kole, who grew up and lives in Freehold, had won the Hispanic Youth Showcase’s teen division held in West New York in 2010, and the contest’s director William Sanchez reached out to her asked her to emcee and judge the competition the following year.
This all came, ironically (or serendipitously, Kole believes), shortly after Anna died. Sanchez asked her to choose a theme for the night, and Kole knew immediately what it would be.
“I chose bullying,” she said. “Rather than waste time wondering what I could have done, I made the decision to focus on what I can do now.”
“Rather than waste time wondering what I could have done, I made the decision to focus on what I can do now.” – Veronica Kole
She has since spoken and performed at eight local schools, including West New York middle school and high school, as she returned recently to the town where it all began.
Drawing from experience
“In middle school I was the robot, I admit,” Kole said. “I was told that if you wore Hollister, Abercrombie, and Ugg boots you had it made. At that point I did what I was told, as most kids that age are very vulnerable and believe what they’re told, but once I got to high school I started walking my own path.”
Kole was bullied her whole life – not just in middle school, though that was the pinnacle of the harassment, she said – because she was a “chubby kid” and focused on dance and the arts. She felt like no one understood her passion and she was made fun of for it in person, through texts, and through Facebook.
“Kids get cell phones at seven, they forget how to talk face-to-face, and I saw a 2-year-old recently playing Angry Birds on an iPad,” Kole mused. “Watching this world change into a plastic one in front of your eyes is crazy, but living through it like I did is even crazier, and this is what I think many adults don’t understand.”
What she does
On Oct. 1, Kole stood before hundreds of students gathered in West New York Middle School’s auditorium with two main messages: To bully or be bullied is not acceptable, and if you follow your own life path and be yourself, you can change the world.
Kole used visual, physical, and musical techniques to drive this home, as kids “have the attention span of a peanut. I know because I was just like that two years ago.”
First, she chose three boys from the audience and brought them onstage for a pushup contest. Then Kole watched the audience closely while they competed.
She says that every time she does this, around 90 percent of the students laugh at those who are behind or who struggle. That day she asked the students who laughed to stand up.
Then she asked the winner, who proved himself to be strongest, if he’d ever felt weak before.
That stopped everyone in their tracks, she said. Then she tells the audience that 90 percent of kids either are bullied and do not speak up, or do not speak up when they witness another being bullied.
This gives them a visual.
“I’m usually not one for statistics, but this one really got to me,” Kole explained. “And when they look around, they see this sea of people and it hits home.”
After the assembly, a girl came up to her who had remembered when she had hosted the arts contest a year earlier. She was still wearing a bracelet Kole had given her then, and told Kole that because of her speech, she had stopped cutting herself.
“I was shocked that she remembered me and that I was able to get the message through,” she said. “I rose above my own experiences and pursued my dream, and I plan to forever try my best to tell kids it’s okay to be themselves.”
Kole has been singing and dancing since she was 9 in school and church choirs, and later joined an opera choir that performed for the Pope in Rome. She has performed solo at Hershey Park, Disney World, Great Adventure, and the Apollo Theatre to name a few, and has been guest singer on television shows such as the Today Show and New York Rocks.
Over the span of her career she has built a sizeable Facebook and Twitter following and plans to continue visiting schools spreading her love of music and her anti-bullying message.
For more information, visit Kole’s website at www.veronicakole.com.
Gennarose Pope may be reached at email@example.com