LEWISTON — The taunts began in grade school.

“You’re fat.”

Things got worse in middle school.

“Two individuals approached me in the hall (of Lewiston Middle School) and told me I was too fat and I should kill myself,” Hope Rubito said Friday in a phone interview.

“Hearing those words and thinking about them drove me to (want to) commit suicide,” she said.

She was in the midst of doing it when she heard the voice of a teacher on the phone with her mother. The teacher had a “gut feeling” that something was off, that the teen’s behavior had changed, Hope said.

“She saved my life.”

Hope was 13.

Now 16 and a junior at a public online high school, she works to help others survive such abuse.

Hope Rubito, 16, of Lewiston was named a Berman & Simmons Youth Leader. Submitted photo

She was recently named one of two Berman & Simmons Youth Leaders, a statewide honor. The other is Isla Wilson of Freeport.

The award comes with a $500 scholarship and the chance to donate another $250 to a charity of choice. Hope chose Green Dot Lewiston/Auburn, volunteers teaching safe, effective strategies to reduce harassment, assault and interpersonal violence.

She said she was “shocked and ecstatic” to receive the award.

Berman & Simmons, a local law firm, established the award to recognize young people who are making a difference in their communities, according to Elaine Gammon, marketing and business development manager for the firm who heads the Youth Leader Awards program.

“We were inspired by Hope’s ability to turn a desperate situation as a survivor of severe bullying into something so positive,” Gammon said Friday.

“Her passion to help others and her leadership work on the Lewiston Youth Advisory Council really impressed us,” Gammon said.

Hope has been on the youth council since 10th grade and was elected chairwoman at the beginning of this school year.

The council, established by the Lewiston City Council in 2001, advises the council on youth issues in the community.

Recently, the LYAC has taken on bullying.

The youths have hosted an anti-bullying panel discussion and led a project to post upbeat notes on every locker at Lewiston High School.

Hope was integral in creating the “Listen Up Lewiston” anti-bullying forum and served as a panelist for LYAC’s program titled “A Call for Kindness” in which students and adults shared stories about their experiences with harassment and bullying.

In spreading her message, Hope met with Lewiston Public Schools Superintendent Todd Finn.

“I was moved,” Finn said Friday, “because here was this absolutely amazing young lady sitting in my office telling me about the terrible experiences (of being bullied).”

He couldn’t get his head around it, Finn said.

“What systems and structures should have been in place to address this culture that made this young lady feel the way she did?” he asked.

A review of the district’s bullying policy requested by School Committee Vice Chairwoman Megan Parks led to changes, Finn said.

“What I discovered in the process was that we had all kinds of people on the School Committee who could identify with the concerns Hope embodied,” he said.

This helped Finn “force the issue” of prioritizing social and emotional learning, which became a committee goal and a budget goal.

The revised policy covers all district schools, with a focus on restorative justice and prevention.

“It isn’t every day that a kid walks into a superintendent’s office and begins the process of shifting an entire philosophy,” Finn said. “But Hope did. Our work is truly her legacy.”

In ninth grade, Hope found herself slipping under again. She was self-harming and in a poor mental state, she said.

“I was kind of becoming suicidal again,” she said.

And then an epiphany.

“I was in the car with my mom and a song came on, ‘You Will Be Found,’” Hope said. “It talks about how we’re not alone and you can reach out your hand and someone will find you.”

It was a message she took to heart.

“I really, really hope that people know they’re not alone and they will be found,” she said.

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