SANTA ANA — The idea came to Natalie Salvatierra after she dealt with bullying at school.
An eighth grader at Hughes Middle School in Tustin, Natalie started getting picked on by the classmate last year who made jokes about her Jewish background. She thought the jokes would stop after a summer break.
“Over the summer, I thought it would be over and that he’d forget about it,” she said. “But in 8th grade, he started making jokes again.”
Since Natalie’s mother is Jewish and her father is Catholic, she’s able to accept others’ beliefs and practices, said the13-year-old.
So, she decided to stand up for herself and talk to the classmate.
“I told him that every religion deserves respect and it doesn’t mean that the person is bad because of it,” Natalie said. “It’s just their own individual practices.”
It worked. Natalie said she’s had no issues since that conversation.
In expanding on her experience, Natalie decided to earn her Girl Scouts Silver Award by basing her project around religious tolerance.
At Temple Beth Sholom, nearly 100 middle school students rotated through seven different stations and were taught the history, beliefs and practices of different religions while also participating in demonstrations, such as yoga and trying on hijabs, and sampled food, Sunday, Nov. 12.
The stations were part of Natalie’s event titled The Amazing Race – Rocking All Religions. After completing one station, students would answer clues to figure out where to go next.
“It’s critical, this generation needs to understand and respect other cultures,” said Kristan Hinman, a member of Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Tustin who brought her 14-year old son, Zander. “They’ve done a great job.”
Students got a more in-depth understanding of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Catholicism, Mormonism, Judaism and Protestantism. Each station included displays, some had food samples, while others had demonstrations or games.
Natalie’s goal was to create a fun event that also educated her peers of the religious diversity among their classmates in an effort to prevent bullying.
“I think it is especially important that middle schoolers are taught about religious tolerance because they are still forming their opinions,” she said.
Natalie was given a $500 grant from the Disney Be Inspired Foundation to fund the event. She decided to model the event around one of her favorite television shows, “The Amazing Race.”
“Religious tolerance might not be a topic everyone wants to learn about on the weekend, so it was important for me to make it fun,” she said. “I thought it would be a good way to tie a country in with a religion like they do with the Amazing Race.”
Members of a youth group at Trinity United Presbyterian in Santa Ana were among the students who participated in the event.
“I think this is a great way to know that people may practice religion differently, but they pretty much believe in the same things,” said youth group member Olivia Hernandez, 13.
Students were also given a history of the temple and shown a Torah scroll by Rabbi Heidi Cohen prior to exploring the stations.
“The timing is great, because elementary school children are usually still pretty accepting of everyone, but in middle school, they start to develop their own identities and challenge others,” said Cohen, who has served at Temple Beth Sholom since 1998. “It’s important to talk and respect each other and take the time to get to know one another.”