When it comes to finding ways to unwind, most people cite hiking, yoga, or getting together with friends as their go-to activities. For Stefanie Kaufman, it’s learning Russian. “I just love Russian history,” says Stefanie. “I also took sign language for seven years, and I love learning a new alphabet.” It’s no surprise that finding ways to build bridges to diversity is something that fuels Stefanie. She founded Project LETS, an organization designed with the mission of erasing the stigma attached to mental illness and suicide. Stefanie created Project LETS as a way to help her and others in her community heal after the loss of a friend from suicide. Currently, Project LETS is working to get the BP Act passed, which would require teachers, administrators, counselors, and specialists who work with students in middle and high school to undergo suicide prevention training. As she works to effect change in her own back yard, Stefanie already has her eyes set on bringing awareness of these issues to global communities. This summer she’ll travel to Romania and Croatia where she’ll teach English, help train leaders on how to assist others in their community who might be grappling with mental illness issues, and spread the life-positive message of Project LETS. (And she might pick up another language along the way)
If you could describe yourself in one hashtag, what would it be?
Tell us about a girl in your life who rocks.
In my short time at Brown University, I've met a girl who has managed to completely change my perspective on the world, and open my eyes to things I never gave a second thought to. Her name is Casey Poore. Casey is truly special in the way that she is so unapologetically who she is, and she is honest, fierce, and powerful. Every day I feel lucky to know her.
What are your dreams/goals/ambitions?
My goal in life is to touch people. Since I was very young, I have been using the gift of language to be able to try and influence and change people. My goal is to be heard. To help people. To make them realize that we are all worth it.
What are you most proud of?
I am most proud of my compassion and determination, which has led to the birth of Project LETS - my non-profit organization that deals with mental illness awareness and suicide prevention. We have developed countless programs and proposed a bill in New York State and are making true and powerful progress.
What piece of advice changed your life?
The piece of advice that changed my life was being told to question everything. I would live my life going through the motions not agreeing with things, and I remember being told that I do not have to accept what I was given. I don't have to sit around letting people determine facts and rules and how I should behave. It is impossible to please everybody - all that matters is that you live a life you are proud of, and never settle for somebody else's definition of 'right.’
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In ten years, I hope that Project LETS has grown, and we are able to reach and help a huge amount of people in need. I hope to be working in the field of surgery, and helping children in underprivileged countries. In ten years, I hope that, through a chain-reaction of some kind, my morals, beliefs, and values will be instilled in a younger generation.
What is the number one item on your bucket list?
The number one item on my bucket list is to publish a work of my writing. I have been writing since I was little - prose, essays, short stories and poetry. I have recently gotten involved with Spoken Word Poetry and have written numerous articles/pieces on feminism and rape culture. I would like for my thoughts to be spread and shared!
Who has been the biggest female influence in your life and why?
As it is hard to pinpoint one single influence, currently, I am completely inspired by Andrea Gibson. As a Spoken Word poet, I find so much of what I need through her words - courage, strength, love, and beauty. She is a powerful woman, and in a very vulnerable position. Each and every day she is putting her own personal life on display, in order to reach and help those who support her. I think that is truly beautiful.
What is the biggest risk you’ve ever taken and what did you learn from it?
The biggest risk I have ever taken has been challenging the ideals of a community in which I have grown up in. When I was a freshman in high school, I lost a friend to suicide. Seeing the aftermath of such a tragic event was extremely saddening, but it also showed me how a community can come together and support each other. I felt that my district did not handle this event in an honorable or dignified way, and I spoke out against that. I had to be very brave and strong, even though I was being attacked and diminished by everyone in a position of power. It was a true risk going against powerful people within my own school district, and even though I surely faced consequences, I know that I had done the right thing.
Why are you THAT GIRL?
I believe I am THAT GIRL because of what I have given to others throughout my life. People don't believe that an 18-year-old girl is capable of enacting change, and well, that is ridiculous. The question I receive most frequently goes along the lines of, "How did you do all of this?!" I did all of this because I believed in myself, and I believed in the truth and what was right. We all are capable of changing the world; I think I just believed in that fact a little more. Since I was 12-years-old I have been suffering from OCD and depression. Since coming forward with those illnesses, I have been able to help so many young people who are struggling with the same things, with nowhere to turn. I believe in words, and language, and sharing. It's funny - I'll be at college freaking out about studying for some test, and then I'll get a piece of mail from a 14-year-old girl who tells me that I am the reason she no longer self-harms. We get hundreds of these a week! It really puts my life in perspective, and everyday I am so grateful that I had the courage to stand up for what I believe in. We are all capable of being THAT GIRL!
Interview conducted and compiled by Sheila Moeschen, IATG Senior Editor