Grayslake North High School graduate Anthony Szulczynski remembers how his life changed in the first grade. It was his first bullying experience.
"I was adopted as a child by a gay couple. First grade was the first time I told someone I didn't have a mom."
Szulczynski said he went from being happy-go-lucky with lots of playmates to being ostracized.
"Everyone started treating me differently and stopped talking to me. They thought I was gay too. It was terrible. I had no friends. It lasted all the way to seventh grade."
As he grew into adolescence, said Szulczynski, the pain of being bullied became so hurtful and intense, he was at the point of considering taking his own life.
"I went to a hospital where you learn to know who you are as a person and to be who you are, that you don't have to be afraid."
That is the message Szulczynski wants to spread to other youths, a message of healing, hope and optimism for the future. That it does get better, but you have to stand up for yourself and be yourself.
There will be plenty of times in your life, said Szulczynski, when people won't like you, what you stand for, or your ideas and opinions, but you cannot give up or give in.
"I always changed myself into what people wanted to see. Now, people look up to me."
Szulczynski has started an anti-bullying program called, "The Bullying Ends Here," which he plans to bring to local middle and high schools. He wants to speak to students, and adults about the subject.
Szulczynski, who was a member of a GNHS activist group called "Voices," said he was inspired to create his own program after the "Rachel's Challenge" program came to his high school.
Rachel Scott was the first person killed in the Columbine High School shootings in April 1999. Her family and friends created Rachel's Challenge to inspire a chain reaction of kindness and compassion.
"I wanted to have a group based on a lot of the messages spread through that," said Szulczynski.
After a dear friend committed suicide, escalated by bullying, Szulczynski said he began asking himself "big questions" about what he could do to help prevent another such tragedy.
Through a public service practicum class at GNHS, Szulczynski began honing his public speaking skills and helped organize events like a 911 community heroes tribute.
Though he's studying at Grayslake's College of Lake County to become an emergency medical technician (EMT) "to help people even more," Szulczynski wants to continue bringing his anti-bullying message to the masses.
He's scheduled to give his first back-to-school presentation to District 46 teachers on Aug. 21.