MONTVILLE, NJ — OneMontville held its first panel in its speaker series entitled “OneMontvile Unites: Dare to Be Diverse—How to Stand Out and Fit In at the Same Time” on Sunday, June 3. Panelists Jenan Matari, Jamie Bruesehoff, Wendy Sefcik and Kristin Canella addressed topics such as ethnicity, gender identity, addiction, teen suicide and more. The panelists spoke about their individual experiences inside and outside of the Montville Township community.

OneMontville Unites aims to raise awareness about controversial issues that exist within the community. The speaker series will create a forum to talk about these issues in terms of action and perspective.

After opening remarks from OneMontville President Shari Schwartz, Moderator Michael D. Johnson, former Montville Township Board of Education member and Montville Township High School alumnus, introduced the panelists.

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Jenan Matari, a Montville Township High School alumnus, spoke first. At 27 years old, Matari is the founder and Editor in Chief of Miss Muslim which Matari said is known as the most controversial website in the United States. Matari uses her platform to create a space for all women such as American Muslims like herself. Matari covers women’s issues such as health and fitness, identity, sexuality, career, politics and more.

As a first generation-born American with Palestinian and Brazilian ethnicities, Matari spoke about her experiences in school. Matari remembers being the only student of Islamic faith in her classes. She found herself sitting at the lunch table with hummus and falafel while her classmates ate Lunchables. Matari said Islam was not taught in school, so her mother would teach her class about the traditions their family followed.

“You don’t need a Muslim kid in school to learn about Islam,” Matari said.   

In recognizing the cultural bullying that exists, Matari uses her voice to speak about controversial issues with the goal of teaching people that it is okay to be different.

The second panelist, Jamie Bruesehoff, told the story of her daughter Rebekah who transitioned at the age of eight. Bruesehoff said Rebekah, who is now 11 years old, had been feminine since she was young, and her gender nonconformity increased with age, causing anxiety and depression.  Bruesehoff said that at the age of seven, Rebekah wanted to die. It was not until the day that Rebekah learned the term ‘transgender’ that everything began to make sense. Once Rebekah transitioned, Bruesehoff said the cloud that had been following her finally disappeared.

Bruesehoff recounts a time when a member of her congregation met Rebekah. She said the man admitted that he did not know a lot about being transgender, but Rebekah had gone from hiding behind her parents at church to twirling around in her dress in front of him. “That’s all I need to know,” he said.

Despite the negative backlash the Bruesehoff family receives for their public advocacy, Bruesehoff said she continues her efforts to create positive change in the transgender community. She has made public appearances to educate others and has lobbied for better laws and protection over the community.

“We use our voice and our privilege to lift up those voices,” Bruesehoff said.

Next, Kristin Canella spoke about the disease of addiction, which many people believe is a choice, Canella said. Canella has learned that “the most supportive are the ones who have the same disease as I do.” Canella said if she realized where this disease would lead her, she never would have picked up any drug, including alcohol. She said it was 16 really long, hard years. Canella said she took her first drink at a very young age and at the age of 12 she got drunk for the first time.

As a Montville business owner and mother of one, Canella said she is encouraged to speak about her experiences because “helping others is what helps me.” Despite how difficult it is, Canella said, “Maybe someone needs me to be here.” One in 10 people are addicts, but it is not their choice. Canella feels anyone can benefit from using the 12 Steps [for recovery] in their lives because they are a way to become your best self. 

Canella stresses, “Alcohol is a drug," often starting the obsessive compulsive nature of the disease. Canella said, "We have no control over being an addict, only how we choose to deal with it." She will educate her daughter about addiction because she is genetically predisposed. Canella said people are afraid to approach the subject and she is dedicated to ending the stigma.

The third panelist Wendy Sefcik shared the story of her son T.J. who died by suicide on December 1, 2010. T.J. suffered from depression but hid his inner pain with his smile, Sefcik said. Sefcik watched as the Montville community came together to support her family at the time of her son’s death. 

Sefcik has since immersed herself in learning everything she can about teen suicide and prevention to pass on the message to others so they do not have to experience the pain her family did. She emphasizes the importance of educating oneself about mental health. Sefcik said T.J. showed many signs, but they were missed.

Not only do people need to educate themselves but they also need to learn how to support those with mental illness because “one in four people will suffer from a mental health disorder in a given year,” Sefcik said.

“Over 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental health disorder at the time of their death,” Sefcik said. It is important to notice long lasting changes and patterns in behavior.

Sefcik urged the parents in the crowd to not be afraid to ask their kids how they are doing. Because mental health disorders are not easily fixable, “we have to give the gift of listening,” Sefcik said. One of the myths of suicide is that talking about it  “will plant that seed.” She said so many people struggle in silence and added stressors such as a job loss or bullying adds to the struggle. It is important to start a conversation rather than avoid the topic.

In changing the conversation, Sefcik hopes that every small change we make will add to a greater change, which starts in the community.

Sefcik ended with her favorite saying, “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted because it can save someone’s life.”

All four panelists emphasized the need to self-educate about these controversial topics as well as the need to educate students while in school.

Johnson said the L.E.A.D. program (“Law Enforcement Against Drugs”) will be replacing the D.A.R.E. program in New Jersey. The program will be brought into the Montville Township public school system under the instruction of a police officer. The L.E.A.D. program focuses on goal setting, decision making, communicating and building character so students can make healthy decisions. Read about the first L.E.A.D. Program graduation in Montville at Woodmont Elementary here

For more information on OneMontville’s speaker series OneMontville Unites, visit onemontville.org.

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