Why We Give – Megan Meier Foundation
Because giving is at the very heart of Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund, we feel it is important to share stories about those who are most impacted by the generosity of our members.
Weekday afternoons had fallen into a pattern.
Every day after school, Josh would rush straight home and jump onto his computer or phone, eager to hear what everybody was talking about.
Never mind that these were all kids who he had just been in the same building with. Online was a different world, with different rules – and most of the time, it seemed a lot more fun.
Most of the time.
On good days, the Cape Girardeau teen was in chats with the popular kids, talking about sports, what happened at school that day, and who was going to ask who out on a date. Typical high school stuff.
Sometimes, they poked fun at people outside the group. It all felt pretty harmless.
On bad days, he was that kid outside the group. Wondering what people were saying, fearing the worst. On these days, it was so easy to get inside his own head. He would dread going back to school the next day.
The line between “in” and “out” was proving to be a fine one. And walking it was flat out exhausting.
An Online Echo Chamber
Who is “in”, who is “out”. Twenty years ago, the same pressures existed for teens. Someone could make one small misstep – maybe tripping in the cafeteria, or hanging out with the wrong person – and just as easily find themselves falling into a lower social stratum.
But today, where everything is amplified by social media and instant communication, the popularity dance is much more complex. And the fall from grace can be resounding.
For Josh, on bad days it felt like a loud and echoing online smack, which then reverberated into his real life, disrupting his school experience.
For many teens, online interactions can leave mental, and sometimes physical, scars. And for some, the outfall can be far worse.
The Megan Meier Foundation, a 2019-2020 grantee of the Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund, is in a constant battle to break up that echo chamber.
Tina Meier founded the non-profit in December 2007, in memory of her 13-year old daughter, Megan, who died by suicide the prior year after being cyberbullied by an adult neighbor who pretended to be a boy she liked on MySpace.
Meier, of St. Charles, learned in the hardest possible way that online bullying can lead to unimaginable, real-life outcomes. And she doesn’t want it to happen to anyone else.
The foundation offers presentations and workshops to schools and community groups across the country, trying to raise awareness and blunt the effects of bullying and cyberbullying.
The idea is to listen to kids and teens, and to empower them, so that the movement belongs to them alone.
The 10th-grader in National Honor Society. The eighth-grader who skips school. The athletes, the computer-nerds, the drama kids, the musicians. The Megan Meier Foundation wants to reach all of them.
“When we first started in 2007, I didn’t have a plan, other than I wanted to help other kids who were struggling with this,” Meier said in a recent interview. “So we started with just sharing Megan’s story in schools.
“But then it grew. We were sitting down and listening to kids from all walks of life…hearing what kids are going through, and educators are going through, and parents are going through.”
The foundation’s mission and vision expanded.
They were still sharing Megan’s story, Meier said, but also “helping to identify at-risk kids who previously didn’t feel like they had a voice.
Helping kids get the resources they need. Helping kids think of what empathy is and what does it mean and getting kids to think before they speak and think before they act.”
Today, the foundation has spread its message of empathy and inclusion to groups in 39 states, across different ages, socio-economic status and race. In any given year, Megan’s story has touched anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 students, parents and educators.
And when they poll kids and teens after a presentation or workshop, upwards of 90 percent say they benefited from the programming and can help identify bullying and empathize with its victims.
Through presentations, workshops, counseling and a targeted resource center, the foundation is making a tangible difference.
But the need still feels endless.
On November 18, a crowd of 170 high school students and 27 educators filled the auditorium at Maryville University. The students represented a cross-section of 11 schools, ranging from St. Louis Priory School to Poplar Bluff High School.
The Change Starts with Me Leadership Workshop, funded with SOS grant money, was already a success even before the day started, just by the number and diversity of people who showed up.
There was a lot of energy in the room, and loud talking as the teens connected with one another and goofed off in the way that students do when they are about to receive an important lesson.
But the clatter of voices quieted as Meier took the stage.
In what has become a familiar ritual, Meier once again told her daughter’s story. Then she gave her young audience a preview of what they could expect from the day.
The format hasn’t changed much since the foundation began offering these workshops in 2011.
Often, the introduction piece will touch on a theme for the day, and Meier will play a video or two with specific messages that relate to the topic. It might be Taylor Swift’s “Calm Down” or Ed Sheeran and Khalid’s “Beautiful People.”
“We try to look for ways to be inspirational and lift them up and have fun, while also letting them know that these are serious topics,” Meier explained in a later interview.
Typically, after the introduction, the students break out into smaller groups with team leaders. There, they will go through exercises where they dive beneath the label of “bullying,” exploring its different forms and the impact it may have on others.
They might draw an identity map, where each person notes something about themselves that makes them proud. Then they draw lines connecting to others who are similar in that way.
“You end up with this big web and it demonstrates that there is more that connects us than divides us,” Meier said.
Or they might explore the idea of a digital footprint, by role playing as business owners who are making hiring decisions with access to candidates’ Instagram pages.
“It’s getting them to think beyond just ‘adults are saying this is bad,'” Meier explained. “That’s how you can get them to think a little differently about where the world is now.”
Often, she said, the messaging is subtle – and the mode of delivery, so fun – that the students don’t even realize they are being “taught.” But the lesson is absorbed, nonetheless.
Developing an Action Plan
That becomes evident at the end of the day, when the students gather back with the educators, who have been in their own workshops.
They work together to develop a plan for their school to implement. It is called Megan’s Voice Action Plan.
Here, they might brainstorm different ways to teach tolerance or to encourage inclusiveness, or talk about how to protect and spot the most vulnerable students.
Once shaped, all the schools gather back in the auditorium, where there is even more sharing and brainstorming.
“Once we empower these kids, they are amazing,” Meier said. “You have to literally give them time limits because they are so eager to share what they want to do and how they are going to do it.
“And they come up with some great ideas that make changes that really work for their school.”
Then, Meier said, the real magic happens.
The students and teachers bring their plans back to their respective schools and share it, yet again.
All of a sudden, the foundation is not just helping those 170 kids in the auditorium, but all 6,100 students who attend the schools that participated.
The Megan Meier Foundation stays in touch with each school, sending banners and encouragement as the action plans play out in real life.
They also survey the students, to make sure the programming stays fresh to their needs.
Because at the end of the day, Meier said, it’s all about making students feel heard – students like Josh, the teen who had been rushing home after school each day to face his uncertain online world.
Josh, who happened to be in the workshop that day, approached Meier afterward to share a heartfelt thanks.
“He said, ‘I just want to tell you this was the best day of my life. Keep having these,'” Meier recalled.
Meier said she searched for a smile or hint of sarcasm that might indicate Josh was exaggerating. It wasn’t there.
“It was truly genuine,” she said. “And it was like, wow. When you’re exhausted from setting up rooms and moving your 500th box for the day and you hear something like that, you just sit back and say, ‘Ok, THIS is why we do this.'”
Note: Some details in the narrative portion of this profile have been altered to protect the identities of the consumers/clients.
Profile written by Jennifer Mann of 618 Creative. Photos via the Megan Meier Foundation.