TOMS RIVER – Masses of Toms River students and parents flocked to the RWJ Barnabas Health Arena on Nov. 15 to see celebrities, all hailing from New Jersey, grace the stage at the first ever “Unbreakable” Anti-Bullying Forum.
One of many to come, this event was put on by the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office in an effort to raise awareness and educate local students on the issues around harassment and bullying through social media.
“Harassment and bullying has escalated through social media over the years,” stated a press release from the prosecutor’s office. “This program will help to address these issues in a positive manner.”
Celebrity appearances were made by Richie Sambora of the legendary rock group Bon Jovi, Gaten Matarazzo of the hit Netflix series Stranger Things, Marie Unanue, author of “The Adventures of Phatty and Payaso,” and Gabe Hurley of The New Black. A surprise guest appearance was also made by none other than Toms River native and Major League Baseball player Todd Frazier.
“In this world nowadays, any kind of positive feat is great, especially when we’re talking about bullying,” said Frazier during a press conference prior to the show. “I think it’s something that everyone’s been a part of in their life.”
Frazier noted that positivity against bullying can help kids prosper in a way similar to his own success and “try to get the best out of everybody.”
Although Frazier grew up in a time before social media became all-encompassing, he did come up through the Toms River schools and is familiar with how kids can be at that age. With his positive attitude, Frazier has gone from just a Toms River High School South baseball player to third basemen for the New York Mets.
“Coming through Toms River Schools, I think it’s important,” said Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley Billheimer. “The challenges now with social media are a lot different than we had.”
Billheimer reminisced growing up in an era where issues were “handled” while at school. Unanue chimed in, stating that when you went home for the weekend the bullying ceased. However, social media’s invasive presence today prevents this, making some kids a target 24/7.
That is what “Unbreakable” was about. The program put on a series of performances and skits to show kids that positivity and treating others how you want to be treated can make all the difference.
Sambora, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame guitarist, performed Bon Jovi’s timeless hit song “Livin’ on a Prayer” in a colorful display of music and togetherness alongside the Point Pleasant Borough High School Choir.
Sambora connected the issue of bullying to that of drug abuse, noting that one can sometimes lead to the other.
“The victims of bullying, what happens is you ending up turning to drugs…it’s a sad attempt to cope with the pain,” he said. Sambora, a self-proclaimed “son of New Jersey” noted that he was proud to be a part of the solution at the event.
The student’s voices and the exciting lights lit up the stage for both Sambora’s performance as well as Matazzaro’s performance with help from his band Work In Progress. While Matazzaro has just wrapped filming for season three of Stranger Things, he is always singing with his band and making guest appearances at events such as these.
As a 16-year old Matarazzo can claim more personal experience with how effective social media can be, whether it is good or bad. He is currently a student at Pinelands Regional High School in Tuckerton.
“I think the most important thing is just to learn responsibility,” he said. “When you have a cell phone, you have a lot of power…having that little device gives you the power to make a difference in somebody’s life.”
Whether that difference is good or bad is up to that person, he added. “So many people are using that power and giving off a sense of negativity.”
Matarazzo related the use of social media and digital devices to both accessibility and barriers. While our phones provide us access to anything and everything through the internet, they also provide bullies with that barrier, “that distance where they’re able to say whatever they want.”
Author Maria Unanue tackles this issue of bullying from both sides with her book “The Adventures of Phatty and Payaso,” stating that she wrote it “in the hopes that kids could see and learn empathy,” by putting themselves in someone’s shoes, even those of a bully, and learn forgiveness.
The program brought in hundreds of people to get involved in the anti-bullying campaign. The celebrity guests, while all native to New Jersey, ranged in age and interests so that kids might perhaps identify with someone like them. Frazier is a professional baseball player, Unanue a writer, Matarazzo and Sambora, performers.
Not only was this program for students who might be going through issues with bullying, but it was also for their parents.
“It’s also for the parents to pay attention to what’s going on at home and try to pay attention and look for the signs of a kid that’s struggling,” said Billheimer.
While “Unbreakable” was the first program of its kind set in motion, Billheimer noted that others are in the works by the prosecutor’s office. In connection with the Attorney General’s 21/21 Community Policing Project, Billheimer said to expect more events like this in the future.
The 21/21 project focuses of the 21 counties in New Jersey hosting 21st century-related events to draw attention to relevant issues in our communities.
“The goal of the project is to strengthen relationships between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve, and to address areas of concern before conflicts arise,” stated the AG’s website.