Lisa Ford Berry
Adversity: Lost son, Michael, to peer abuse-driven suicide
Advocacy: Created nonprofit organization to combat peer abuse
None of us expect to outlive our children. But Lisa Ford-Berry did. Her son, Michael, shot himself on his 17th birthday three hours after he had left for school. “He was an exceptional young man,” says Ford-Berry. He was a straight “A” student, on the honor roll and well-liked. She says of their family, “We were the poster child, for “Leave it to Beaver,” Norman Rockwell.” What she and her husband didn’t know then was that Michael was the victim of cyber-bullying, subject to a relentless torrent of what Ford-Berry describes as “vile filth” by classmates. Ford-Berry says Michael’s life was systematically dismantled by another student. Others chimed in on social media. “Everyone piles on,” she says. And they weren’t strangers. Some of the teens had spent the night at her house, or ridden in her car as she ferried kids around in the carpool. Ford-Berry says her son was sexually harassed over the perception he was gay. “He said something, but no one did anything,” says Ford-Berry, who describes how Michael reached out to a school counselor and then an administrator who told him to “ignore it.” None, she says, saw fit to notify her or her husband. It became too much for him to bear. When Ford-Berry got the phone call at work that Michael was in the hospital suffering from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, she thought authorities had gotten her mixed up with the wrong family. Then the reality sent in. “I can not begin to explain the devastation,” Ford-Berry says. The first year after Michael’s death she didn’t even leave the house. “I was a walking, open wound.” She also suffered a crisis in faith. The belief system that had sustained her through so many trials before, failed her now. On the second anniversary of Michael’s death, on the day he would’ve turned 19, Ford-Berry and her husband stopped on the cliffs above Big Sur to release balloons into the air and rose petals into the ocean surf below to remember their son. How many other kids have to die they wondered, subject to the abuse of their peers? Ford-Berry says her husband asked, “Why don’t you do something?” She did.
Heartache gave birth to BRAVE, the nonprofit organization Berry founded in honor of Michael. The Brave Society–which stands for Bullies Really Are Violating Everyone–is her son’s legacy. Ford-Berry walked away from her corporate career to ensure that “no other family ever, ever has to suffer like we do, that no other child ever feels like no one cares.” BRAVE is dedicated to shining the light on peer-to-peer abuse, which Ford terms “bullycide.” She goes into schools with an experiential learning program designed to teach kindness and empathy. She talks to educators, students and parents. She also speaks with lawmakers, lobbyists and law enforcement. “I go where I’m invited,” Ford-Berry says. “I advocate…my passion will forever be the parent point of view.” Ford-Berry has also created a hands-on handbook on peer abuse entitled “BE BRAVE Say Something: Do Something.” It tells her family’s story while also dispensing practical advice on responding to abuse. “It’s aimed at anybody who doesn’t want to be a bystander,” Ford-Berry explains. “Education is a bureaucracy..it’s like the DMV.” The handbook helps navigate the maze. Ford-Berry has also spearheaded a prevention and intervention conference that takes place every October called “Say Something, Do Something,” examining peer abuse from ever facet. “It is my commitment to the community.” She also collaborates with like-minded organizations like the A2A Alliance based on core beliefs that service, purpose and empathy help create a resilient state of mind that allows us to celebrate human dignity. “I’m here to save lives,” says Ford-Berry. “People want to do the right thing, but it’s hard.” BRAVE aims to make it easier.