TUSCALOOSA, AL (AP) - Self-esteem can be fragile in any child. For a child who is "different" from other children, even well-meaning or careless remarks can hurt, nevermind the taunts, stares or not-so-subtle whispers.
"I remember a fifth grade experience. I was walking out of my ballet class, and a woman took me by the arm and said, 'Oh my goodness, did you get hit in the face?'" said University of Alabama sophomore Abigail Hardin. "People would ask me questions, and they didn't realize how much it affected me."
Walking away from that experience, Hardin, who grew up with a port-wine birthmark on her face, recalls asking herself if that was how everyone looked at her. As far back as she can remember, Hardin said, she endured bullying, teasing and comments from classmates that took a toll on her self-esteem.
Her response? In 2006, after undergoing eight laser surgeries that made the birthmark less noticeable, the Clinton, Miss., native wrote a children's book. The book, "look at me; i am just like you," tells the story of "Lucie, The Hippopotamus," and her very noticeable difference that brings her "unwanted" attention from people in her school.
The book is aimed at grade-school children and its message is to appreciate differences in others, and for those with differences to accept themselves for who they are.
Hardin began reading her book in schools in the Jackson, Miss., metro area, which includes her hometown of Clinton.
"I wanted to see how those kids felt different and how teachers were responding to it," she said.
At the time, Hardin said, her community was grieving over seven teen suicides, the youngest of them 11 years old.
"I realized it was more than addressing a difference or being sensitive. It was really about issues like bullying, racism and depression that lead teens to suicide," she said.
Hardin, who is double majoring in apparel design and entrepreneurship at UA, founded the Open My Eyes Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on supporting projects that promote character development.
One of those projects is to place a copy of "look at me; i am just like you" in every classroom from kindergarten to third grade in Alabama.
So far, Hardin, 19, has read her book to more than 3,000 children, and it can be found in 19 schools in Mississippi and locally at Tuscaloosa Academy and Holt Elementary.
Hardin, who is also a co-advocate for education and youth development at UA's Community Service Center, said her book can be used as a reference for professors to identify some of the issues children have.
"Eighty-five percent of personality forms by the age of 12, so it is necessary to reinforce character qualities," she said.
Recently, Hardin received the Patient of Courage Award before 3,000 plastic surgeons during the opening ceremonies of the Plastic Surgery 2009 international conference in Seattle.
The award is given to people whose lives were changed by reconstructive plastic surgery and now give back to society.
Hardin's plans include expanding the reach of her projects and writing another book with the help of her mother, Karla Hardin, a child developmental specialist. Her next book will talk about conflict resolution between children.
"I will explain to kids what to do when their friends tell them, 'Hey, you are not my friend anymore,' so I will explain to them what to do from there," she said.
Information from: The Tuscaloosa News, http://www.tuscaloosanews.com