Van Raaij said she was bullied as a 15-year-old freshman.
“It was really bad, like police reports, lawsuits, it was a horrible mess,” van Raaij said.
A year later, she noticed the bullying she experienced happening to others. Walking into the girl’s locker room, she saw “really nasty things” written on the chalkboard, she said.
She erased the hateful messages and replaced them with the words “Be Kind,” all the while taking before and after pictures that her mom posted on Facebook.
The next thing she knew, the Facebook post went viral.
The following Friday, April 20, was the anniversary of the 1999 Columbine school shooting. Thousands of high schools participated in anti-gun protests and walk-outs. Van Raaij’s school was one of them.
“My school had the whole entire narrative of walking out and pro-gun versus anti-gun. I was like ‘that’s not what this should be about.’”
In response, van Raaij designed and handed out T-shirts branded “Be Kind.” What initially started out as a small project eventually turned into a larger undertaking.
Peers and community members wanted to buy the T-shirts and news outlets were requesting interviews.
“After that, it just felt like everything flipped upside down,” van Raaij said. “It instantly took off. There was no time to process anything that was going on.”
Eventually, though, van Raaij decided to “go all in” and chose to create a scholarship for graduating seniors in Clark County with the money she received from selling T-shirts. She also donated to several community organizations and families in need.
Van Raaij was crowned Ohio State Fairs’ Queen 2021 on May 22, representing Clark County and her hometown, South Charleston.
Van Raaij has 10 years of 4-H experience and four years of FFA. Her many projects in 4-H included market hogs, dairy feeder calves, sewing, public speaking and home projects. She also held leadership roles as vice president of her FFA chapter and FFA State vice president at large.
Van Raaij has wanted to win Ohio State Fairs Queen since she ran for Clark County Queen when she was 16 and selected first runner-up. She said she worked hard for the title of Ohio State Queen, but winning still came as a shock.
She said that out of 95 contestants, she didn’t think her chances of winning were high. “It meant the world though, not just for me but for Clark County too.”
Amid starting “Be Kind,” van Raaij was also diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, which she says was the biggest challenge she has faced thus far.
“Autoimmune disorders are not understood. They are under-researched and underfunded and really just put on the backburner in the mental health industry. And, of course, my mental illness played a role in my autoimmune disorder and vice versa,” van Raaij said.
Van Raaij said experiences like starting the nonprofit, FFA, 4-H, and winning Fair Queen have helped her overcome her mental health struggles and have given her the platform to share her experiences with others.
“Being involved in things that were much bigger than myself was huge because even when I felt like I didn’t want to mentally do it anymore, I kind of had to,” she said. “Having things to do, and things that fulfill you and make you feel like you have a purpose are so important.”
For van Raaij, “Be Kind’' has become a symbol of turning the hurt she’s experienced into a way to help others.
“It means healing, for not just me, but everyone else. It really meant being able to destigmatize mental health and mental illness,” van Raaij said. “I’ve had multiple incidents where kids have walked up to me and said ‘How did you stop yourself,’ or ‘How are you coping with your feelings and not turning to self-harm?’ because that is so common. It still is.”
Van Raaij says winning Clark County and Ohio State Fairs Queen has increased her confidence and proven that hard work and action do yield positive results.
This fall, van Raaij will return to Ohio State University working toward a major in Psychology with a minor in Substance Misuse and Addiction. On a pre-med track, she hopes to one day be a pediatric rheumatologist where she can help kids with autoimmune disorders.