From an outside perspective, Zoe Ayala is a happy, creative 12-year-old. Her favorite color is blue. She enjoys drawing and singing and playing her viola in the orchestra. She has multiple pets and brothers and sisters. She likes school, especially social studies and Spanish.
But one thing is different about Zoe. She's been bullied by her peers.
"I never really told my mom. In first grade, I never told her I was being bullied or anything," Zoe said. "But when I was in sixth grade, I eventually told her. I said there are all these things that are going around, there are people calling me names."
"That was her breaking point," her mother, Mary, added.
Zoe started getting bullied at an early age but hid her struggle from her family.
"Whenever I was in all the other grades, I would cry, but I wouldn't tell anybody why," Zoe said. "And after school, I would have a big smile on my face just to hide it. I would hide it a lot because I really didn't think it would be a big problem. I wouldn't think that it would be important to be dealing with bullying, to like waste their time."
"She hid it very well," Mary said.
And while Zoe would try to stand up for others who were being bullied, she wasn't always able to stand up for herself.
"She would eat her lunch in the restroom because she'd be embarassed. Her peers would talk about how 'she's too tall. She's too heavy, and she's too dark.' You know, just a number of things. Kids can be cruel," Mary said.
When Zoe reached her breaking point in sixth grade, her grandmother found ACH's free counseling program, which teaches skills and equips youth with tools to help youth and families with real world challenges.
"When Zoe started seventh grade, her grandmother said, 'It's not going to happen again this year,'" Mary said. "We decided we're going to get on top of it, and we're going to do whatever it takes to make her stronger so that she doesn't get bullied."
Zoe started going to counseling but initially had trouble opening up.
"It was pretty rough. I told [the counselor] things little by little," Zoe said. "But when we were in the middle of the session, I would always tell her more and more."
Zoe's counselor would set goals for her: talk to more people, try to make new friends or talk with the eighth graders of whom Zoe was afraid.
"She had a way of getting Zoe to open up," Mary said of their counseling experience. "They played Jenga. That was pretty cool. I got to play that once with them."
"I like how I was able to open up more," Zoe added. "I wasn't afraid of saying what I had to say because it's counseling. Counseling is the time when you're able to tell somebody all your worries. It changed my life by me being able to open up more, be more expressive about myself, being more confident and not being scared of what others say. You got to stick up for yourself."
Zoe's seventh grade year is going better than the previous years, and she hasn't been bullied.
She's learned not to judge a book by its cover, and as a result, had made new friends this year. She used to be afraid of a boy named Abel because she thought he looked mean and was afraid he would hurt her. So she stayed out of his way and tried not to make eye contact with him. This year, she was paired up with him on a project, and she found out that he was a nice guy. The two are now friends.
As for the advice she'd offer to others being bullied, Zoe said, "Don't listen to what other people have to say. They only talk about you because there's probably something going on with them, and they want to feel stronger and more powerful. So if you're being bullied, don't let it continue, or else it's going to stick with you for a long time. If you're being bullied, stick up for yourself. Don't put up with it. Tell somebody. Tell a teacher. Tell somebody who you can trust. Nobody should pick on you just because you're different. Everybody's different for a reason."