There is much that can be said of Leanne Prendergast. She is young — she turned 22 last June — confident, inspiring and she has a sweet British accent. When she smiles, it reaches her full, almond-coloured eyes and appears to do a gleeful dance. One way to sum her up nicely, is that she has “lots of love” to give.
As the founder and president of Love Our Lives (LOL) — an organization that raises awareness about bullying — she strives to carry out a message of hope, love and self-acceptance. This she does not only with her work with LOL, but also by simply living it out. Yet, she does not deny her own personal battle, and the hard road it took to get her to where she is today.
Born and raised in London, England, Leanne says she remembers growing up in a happy environment; one that encouraged a strong identity and faith. She had a full house, filled with extended family members, all of whom readily embraced each other. But when she moved to Toronto, Ontario in 2001, things changed. “Moving to Canada was very much a different experience; a different culture,” she said. “We just didn’t have that same support as we had in England; I felt that I had lost that sense of community.”
Then the taunts started. The target: Her eyes. During her preteen years, her eyes were protruding, so much that it became of concern to her – Though, her grandmother had always lovingly referred to her as “Big Eyes”.
In response to the harsh comments, along with wanting to drop out of school, she made inquiries about doing eye surgery. It came to a moment of truth, however, when she was informed by doctors that there was a 50/50 chance of her seeing again. “When I heard [that], I was like: ‘It’s not worth losing my sight.’ At that moment, I had to make that decision of acceptance, and to love [myself].” In the end, she decided against going ahead with the surgery.
“How can you ‘laugh out loud’ or give ‘lots of love’ if you don’t even love yourself?”
At the age of 12, Leanne would begin writing a book, with her then-15 year-old sister, Laurece. (Leanne would be 14, by the time it was published). The book provided insight into the shared experiences of both girls, as victims of bullying. Getting to Know Me is a collection of journal entries, that of which the sisters were compelled to write by their mother. It would take readers on their personal journey, one that would eventually lead to boosted confidence and self-acceptance. Leanne says she hoped it would serve as a source of encouragement for girls battling similar issues.
It was during the time of the book’s creative process and subsequent release, that Leanne would co-found Love Our Lives (LOL). The organization started during a time, when the virtual instant chat world (MSN) was coining text speech such as “lol”, which stood for either “laugh out loud” or “lots of love”. In a conversation Leanne had with Laurece one day, a statement would be made that went deeper than plastic smiles and trite terms, that of which can often used to mask hidden pain. At one point during their conversation, Laurece would say: “How can you ‘laugh out loud’ or give ‘lots of love’ if you don’t even love yourself?”
It was this key thought that would further ignite the spirit and vision of LOL. Now when Leanne does speaking engagements and workshops in schools, she aims to instill a message of true worth and value in the hearts of the young girls and boys she encounters.
The tagline behind LOL is #girlsrestoringthewoman; a core message that is especially driven by her strong faith in God. One way this message is translated is through the use of arts as a medium of change. One program in particular called “The Art Room” – a work in progress – has youth using art to freely express their experiences with bullying.
“In dealing with bullying, we want to use the voices of those who have experienced it. What we want to do is put that power back into people and [encourage] them to share [their stories],” she says. “If we can put that approach in our programs, [then we’re] engaging and being a part of [something] that can actually change how we think about bullying.”
Leanne also hopes to use LOL workshops to challenge negativity and destructive language. When she speaks at schools, she leads out in one activity where she has participants replacing hateful words that they have been fed in the past, with much more inspiring words. For example, “annoying” becomes “charismatic”.
From her work within the community, Leanne has been the recipient of the Top 20 under 20 national award, and has since received other numerous scholarships and awards. She has further collaborated with multiple organizations in raising awareness about bullying, and combating abuse against women. Her efforts clearly showcase that ultimately what she seeks is true restoration for herself and others.
This desire of hers stems most heavily from her strong faith. It was also her faith that served a huge role in overcoming her own insecurities, and shaping her into the woman she is today. Through it all, she has shown that freedom from the world of self-hate is truly possible. But such a transformation, Leanne says, must first begin in the mind.
“There’s a script in our minds that we’ve allowed to rule our thoughts,” she says. “But the moment we start to rewrite that is when we’ve taken our first step to restore ourselves. Then, we begin the process of letting go of the negativity that we’ve been carrying for so long.”
And change of this nature doesn’t happen overnight. In speaking of her own experience, Leanne says it took time in order to achieve the self-confidence she possesses today; she has had to learn to rely on a Higher Source to propel her forward. It is this source that she relies on to reprogram her mind for the better.
When asked what she would say if she were to come face-to-face with the bullies from her past, Leanne appears to be at peace, as she shares. “I forgive them. I can’t hold that in my heart because there’s too much at stake. There’s too much to do, [and] too many people to help,” she said. “We don’t have to be friends, but it wouldn’t hurt me to smile at them; it wouldn’t hurt me to say hello.”
Photos: Amanda Yeboah
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