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The Journals are the premier publications for high-quality, hyperlocal news and advertising in Monmouth County, New Jersey

Aug 23, 2020

How One Woman’s Commitment to Empathy Has Created a Kinder World

By Claudia M. Greenhut

Forty three years ago, Red Bank resident Laraine Gaunt embarked on a mission to bring empathy to elementary schools. It was then that “It’s Ok to Be Different” was created. Decades later, Gaunt’s mission remains the same: to comprehensively foster empathy, understanding, and kindness in all children.

It’s OK to be Different is a free, literary-based program that teaches empathy to elementary age children. Gaunt believes children are instinctively more sensitive than adults and able to express their feelings more freely. Her belief is that if empathy is taught at a younger age, society will be more successful in fighting discrimination and racism because these children will grow up to be more empathic adults. Courses such as “Embracing the LGBT Community,” “Be a Buddy, Not a Bully” and “Understanding Disabilities” that tackle discrimination, bullying and cultural differences, are spread out over a period of weeks and consist of a reading, an activity and a speaker. In 2019, Gaunt created the Upstander Club, which promotes activism among middle and high school students who are passionate about various social just issues and gives them opportunities to implement positive change.

One of Gaunt’s favorite courses, “Courage to Care,” brings discrimination to life as well as the feelings associated with it. The activity consists of dividing the classroom into two groups; Group A is read a book and Group B is not. What follows is discrimination in action. Suzanne Butler, board member of It’s Ok to be Different and Fair Haven resident, recalls being amazed the first time she taught this class. She was particularly struck by the reactions of the students who were not read the book.

“Some students cried, some withdrew, others yelled out ‘Hey, that’s not fair!’” Butler said.

The hope is that children will remember how discrimination made them feel and as a result, stand up against it.

As a teenager, Gaunt worked at a summer camp for children with Down syndrome and recalls being struck by what these children could do, rather than what they couldn’t. She began her career as a special education teacher at the Katzenbach New Jersey School for the Deaf in Trenton. In 1979, she created It’s OK to Be Different, and its first program, “Understanding Disabilities,” was born.

Not everyone saw things Gaunt’s way. In the 70s, she recalls that society wasn’t as open to talking about these subjects as they are today. In fact, during one of her lessons, she featured Marlo Thomas’ book, “Free to Be You and Me,” which focuses on gender equality. When she introduced the book, she remembered backlash from parents who felt the subject matter was too radical for children. On another occasion, a father demanded his son be taken out of her class, when she introduced a book about acceptance called “My Princess Boy,” which is about a little boy who loves to dress up and wear tiaras.

Gaunt remains frustrated by anyone’s apprehension to the core tenets of her program. How could anyone be against inclusion, acceptance and kindness? When asked how current events such as the recent riots made her feel, she said, “Angry, but anger is sometimes a useful feeling because it encourages us to act.”

To date, Gaunt has taught 15,000 students in 17 schools throughout Monmouth County. She is the recipient of the prestigious Christa McAuliffe Fellowship award and was presented with the Axelrod Award by the New Jersey Department of Education, Holocaust Commission and Anti-Defamation League in 1997.

Butler said, “Laraine’s passion and commitment to equality and tolerance are inspirational. Her devotion to children is deep and her ability to always see how our differences are something to be embraced and celebrated has proven to be timeless. The more people that listen to her message, the better off the world will be.”

Gaunt concluded, “My hope is that graduates of this program will go on to be adults that are more kind, more empathetic and that they will pass it along, and that one day, there won’t be a need for this program.” Until then, It’s Ok to be Different has never been more relevant and needed.

For more information on It’s Ok to Be Different (which is free and can be taught from home), visit ItsOkToBeDifferent.org or email Laraine Gaunt at egaunt3@comcast.net.