Molly Burke
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Molly Burke

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Band Comedy Spoken Word

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"Yahoo! Exclusive: Molly Burke empowers Canada’s youth to stand up to bullying"

November 12th to 17th is National Bullying Awareness Week.

A recent survey by Free the Children, RBC and TELUS found that both youth (86%) and adults (85%) in Canada agreed that young people are adequately empowered to stand up to bullying.

Among those standing up to bullying is Molly Burke, 18. The blind Me to We motivational speaker recently shared her personal bullying experiences — and her journey from hopelessness to hopefulness — with Yahoo! Canada News.

Burke was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease called retinitis pigmentosa at the age of 4.

"What that means is, 'You're going to lose your vision but we don't know when,'" Burke explains.

By the time she was 5, Burke was speaking publicly on behalf of the Foundation Fighting Blindness. The next year, in anticipation of losing her sight, she started learning Braille and how to use a cane.

Yahoo! Canada: When did the bullying start?

Burke: For me, that's when the bullying started. Because it made me different. Kids didn't understand why I was doing those things. And I didn't understand because I could still play soccer and I could still read the chalkboard. It wasn't serious bullying at that point, it was just a lack of understanding from the kids as well as myself.

And then as I grew older, it progressed more and more. Over the course of about 6 to 8 months of my Grade 8 year, I slowly lost my vision due to my disease. Not only did I lose my vision, but I also lost all of my friends and my hope.

I suffered from depression at that time. People often say, "Of course, losing your vision, that's a really difficult time." But what shocks people is that it really wasn't the vision loss that was the most difficult. It was the bullying that I was facing. Not only from students, but from teachers as well. Not only offline, but online. It felt like I could never get away from it. It felt like it was everyone, it was surrounding me. It was definitely a very difficult time.

Four years ago, I was dealing with the standard name-calling and things like that, but also more severe situations. I was on crutches at one point and completely blind, so I was relying on other people. I couldn't use my guide dog, I couldn't use a cane, and other people were helping me get around. A group of girls that had just, months earlier, been my best friends decided they were going to lead me down a big hill into a forest. They took my crutches and basically just left me there and they went back to class.

Another situation: I had a girl dress up as me for Halloween and show up to school and basically spend the entire day making fun of me and mocking me and making fun of everything that I do and who I am.

And then everything online, people just commenting and writing mean statuses and pictures and things like that. It's really difficult to deal with when it's surrounding you. Unfortunately, I'm hearing stories like that more and more of the online bullying, which is very difficult to deal with because you can't get away from it. It's not just at school anymore. It's everywhere.

How would you describe the journey from hopelessness to hope? What changed for you?

For me: looking back.

Yes, I lost my friends and I lost my vision and I lost my will to live and I lost a lot of things, but the most important and vital thing that i had lost was my hope. Hope that it would get better. Hope that I could get through it. Hope that life goes on and I would recover. That was what was so crucial.

And I think my suicidal thoughts and my depression was that I had lost hope. Once I had realized that, I started my journey of rediscovering what hope now meant to me. And that's when my recovery started: when I started reaching out outside of myself and I realized that I needed to stop running from my problems. I needed to deal with them. And I needed to start asking for help and admit that I couldn't do it alone.

Not only just in times of difficulty, but as teenagers, we tend to have a lot of self-pity, a lot of "Why me?", "The world revolves around me." And once I started to realize that there's a whole world out there that is willing to support me and there's a whole world out there that also needs help, that's when I started to recover and find hope again.

What's it like telling your story to thousands of people at a time through Me to We?

Especially in a crowd like a We Day room, it's really amazing to hear 20,000 people screaming in support when just four years ago I felt so alone, and to be able to reach out to youth who are dealing with similar issues or just going through a tough time. They just need to be told it gets better. They just need to see somebody who's been through it and who has gone though it and who is young like them and still deals with young-people's issues. It's a good feeling.

My goal is to be the role model that I wanted and that I didn't have. To be that person. To be there for those people that are going through that. - Yahoo News


"Amanda Todd’s family finds comfort, support at We Day (With Video)"

When Molly Burke was 14, she lost her sight.

Her friends abandoned her and she was bullied so mercilessly that she came close to losing all hope.

Burke was at We Day Vancouver Thursday to share her story with a stadium full of youth, parents and educators — and, in a quiet moment, with the parents of Amanda Todd, the Port Coquitlam teen who died last week after enduring years of bullying and harassment, online and off.

“When I was in Grade 8 and I lost my vision, I also lost all my friends and I struggled with really severe bullying — it broke my soul, it worked away at my spirit and I just felt lifeless,” Burke said when she visited the Todd family at We Day, at the invitation of Free the Children co-founders Marc and Craig Kielburger.

“I want to be able to share my story with others and hopefully reach out to young people, girls and boys who are dealing with similar situations and maybe help them get through it and let them know they are not alone,” Burke said.

“Because I know in that moment you feel so alone.”

Burke, now 18, was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa — a degenerative retinal disease — at the age of four and her sight deteriorated to the point she became totally blind. With her guide dog Gypsy sitting patiently by her feet, Burke listened as Carol Todd talked about her daughter. When it was time for Burke to leave, the two hugged.

“My daughter had two wishes, this was one of them,” Carol said, referring to her daughter’s desire to go to We Day.

Amanda’s other wish was that in telling her story in a YouTube video chronicling her horrific experience at the hands of stalkers and bullies, she should would give courage to other youth suffering similar ordeals and help spare them the pain she went through.

Amanda’s father Norm told Burke her speech made him realize his family was not alone.

“We thought when we were dealing with Amanda’s problems we were alone, but coming here today made me aware of just how big the problem truly is, how many children are affected by bullying, and I thank you for sharing your story,” Norm told Burke, just before she and Gypsy left the private suite where the Todd family and Amanda’s friends watched We Day speeches and entertainment. While the participants ranged from Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu to the band OneRepublic, it was Burke and Lovato’s stories that resonated most with Amanda’s family and friends.

It had been Amanda’s dream to meet Demi Lovato, a singer-songwriter, X Factor judge and anti-bullying advocate. The teen was waiting until her sixteenth birthday in November to get a tattoo reading Stay Strong, the words Lovato has tattooed on her wrist.

“I have been through a lot of the same issues that I know a lot of you here are struggling with,” Lovato told the young people who filled Rogers Arena. “And I wanted to be a part of it. I know there is someone out there in the audience who is being bullied and I know they need someone to look up to.

“I’m on this stage and I’m talking to you whoever it is out there and I’m telling you, this is an issue that we can beat, this is something that you can get through and this is something that will not break you down,” Lovato told the cheering crowd.
- Vancouver Sun


"Blind activist offers vision of hope for victims of bullying"

They had been her best friends – but when Molly Burke lost her vision at age 14, it was that same group of girls who committed an act of bullying so vicious she began cutting herself and contemplating suicide.

“They started walking me down this huge hill and into a forest near our school,” Ms. Burke recalled. The walk was made that much more difficult by the fact the Oakville, Ont., teen had recently fallen down a flight of steps and broken her ankle.

Once they made it into the woods, one of the eight girls asked to see her crutches. Before she could answer, they were ripped away.

“And then they smashed them against the tree and they broke them,” she said. “And that’s when they all started laughing and ran away to class together, leaving me. I was alone, in a forest. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t walk. They took my crutches and my backpack. I had nothing. I had no one.”

Ms. Burke, one of the rising faces of anti-bullying in this country, shared that story with a couple hundred students at Vancouver Technical Secondary School on Friday, in a speech highlighting the effects of bullying and her realization that life, ultimately, does get better. The speech was especially poignant following this week’s suicide of a B.C. teen who had been picked on mercilessly.

Ms. Burke said 15-year-old Amanda Todd’s death was a “tragedy.”

“Four years ago I was definitely in a similar place. I had been self-harming, dealing with severe depression and seriously contemplating suicide,” she said. “Luckily, four years later I’m still here. It’s girls like her, and stories like that, that give me my inspiration to keep going. I am sharing my story to get the point across, but I am doing it in honour of those who don’t make it to share theirs.”

As she stood on the school auditorium stage, gripping the microphone in her left hand, the diminutive Ms. Burke didn’t immediately look the part of a motivational speaker. The now-18-year-old in the purple pants was low-key, quiet even, as if wanting the story to tell itself.

She was four years old when she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that leads to loss of vision. By Grade 1 she was learning Braille – albeit halfheartedly, since she wanted to use her eyes like the rest of the kids.

It was the summer between Grade 7 and 8, she said, when things took a turn for the worse. Black started looking grey. Yellow became white. The chalkboard soon disappeared altogether.

Doctors told her they didn’t know how much longer she’d be able to see.

“I just started to cry. That night, my mom was full of words of encouragement. ‘It’s going to be okay, we’re going to get through this, it will all be all right.’ But I knew it wouldn’t.”

As her vision faded, Ms. Burke started using a white cane, something that left her friends embarrassed. The bullying began, invitations dried up and some people told her to kill herself.

She got a guide dog, hoping it would draw people in, where the cane had driven them away. But when she broke her ankle the dog was of little use, and teachers would assign students to help her get around on her crutches.

The day she was led into the woods, the girls had been assigned to take her to lunch. The auditorium crowd sat eerily silent as she described the anger she had felt.

She switched schools, but a new group of kids continued the bullying. Things only improved, she said, when she alerted the principal and emerged from her “dark place” to realize how much the people in her life cared. When asked by a student what she would say to her 14-year-old self, she answered, “Be strong.”

Ms. Burke, who works for the firm Me to We and is scheduled to speak at We Day in Vancouver next week, answered inquiries ranging from how she uses Facebook to how she can tell if a guy is cute. She received a loud ovation when, at one point, she said she’s happier than she's ever been.

Ms. Burke was surrounded by students after the hour-long session, several of whom hugged her. “You give so many people so much hope,” one girl said. “I cried so many times.” - The Globe and Mail


"Tales of inspiration often steal We Day spotlight from celebs"

Tales of inspiration often steal We Day spotlight from celebs

Valerie Fortney, Calgary Herald
Published: Wednesday, October 24, 2012

At her first We Day event, Molly Burke found herself trembling from head to toe.

At that moment, an older gentleman came to her rescue. He put his arm around her, said some words of encouragement and handed her a rosary.

"He asked me if I was nervous and I said, 'a little, but excited too,' " says the 18-year-old from Oakville, Ont., who is blind. "He gave me a hug, then put a rosary in my hand and said, 'When you go on stage, put this in your pocket. It'll bring you good fortune."

As the diminutive, adorable teen tells me this story, I too feel the urge to put my arms around her, to protect her from the harshness of life.

In this case, however, appearances are more than a little deceiving. That pep talk from last year was before Burke stepped on to a stage to speak to a crowd of 20,000. And that reassuring older man? Well, that was none other than Martin Sheen, the legendary film star and activist.

In fact, within minutes of meeting Burke, I realize that she'd probably do a better job of protecting me. One of the speakers at We Day Alberta, which makes its Alberta debut today at the Saddledome, Burke has quickly become an audience favourite with her story of overcoming a major handicap - and finding new meaning in life through reaching out to others.

"I lost my vision, my friends, my hope," she tells me as, just a few metres away, celebrity philanthropists Marc and Craig Kielburger rehearse their introductions for the big event that will see about 18,000 kids from around Alberta converge on the Saddledome for a day of entertainment and inspirational speeches.

"I also suffered from some serious bullying," she says. "But the hardest part of all was the loss of hope."

Last year, three years after completely losing her eyesight due to a retinal disease, Burke connected with the Kielburger brothers, who run both We Day and the charitable organization Free the Children. She soon found herself on the other end of charity, travelling to Kenya; she also began speaking about her experiences, at smaller gatherings as well as at annual We Day events across the country.

"I went from feeling hopeless to being happier than I ever thought I could be," she says with a warm smile.

"I'm so passionate about spreading my message of hope and showing kids how their lives can be enriched by helping others. I'm living the life I always dreamed of - and I'm only 18."

Like other We Day events, celebrities will join regular people like Burke on the Saddledome's stage: CNN talk-show host Larry King, Martin Sheen and R&B singer Shawn Desman are among the big names.

But while their names aren't recognizable to millions, it's people like Burke and the fellow accompanying her on this day, Spencer West, that have some of the most inspiring stories to share. The 31-year-old West, whose legs were amputated just below the pelvis when he was five due to a genetic disorder, instantly wins me over.

"I've done the legwork, so to speak," West, a veteran of more than 10 We Days, says with a self-deprecating laugh. "I show the kids that there are no excuses, that it's time to take action. I'm here to give them that last push."

If there's anyone who's earned the right to push the country's youth to dream big and help make the world a better place, it's West. This past June, the Torontonian climbed Mount Kilimanjaro powered by his hands, a feat that has raised more than $500,000 to help create clean water programs in Kenya.

Both speakers say they get as much out of We Day as the youngsters in the audience, a crowd that earned invitations by getting involved in local and global communities. "I feel like a kid dressed up in my dad's clothes," says West, while Burke adds, "It's the coolest thing, meeting people like Desmond Tutu and Nelly Furtado."

Still, it's not surprising to hear the two are always a hit with their young audience, something Marc Kiel-burger attributes to them being "regular people, not celebrities, who've done extraordinary things.

"They often steal the show, and we not only don't mind, we're honoured to have them on the team."

For Burke, who's marking her third We Day in Calgary, it gets easier each time.

"But just in case," says the inspiring spitfire, pulling a rosary from her back pocket, "I always have this on hand."

vfortney@calgaryherald.com

Twitter.com/ValFortney


© Calgary Herald 2012 - Calgary Herald


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When she was just four years old, Molly Burkes world began to darken: she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a retinal disease causing loss of vision. But despite this, and the ensuing obstacles and hardships she faced, it wasnt long before she began bringing light into the lives of others. Molly began public speaking at the age of five. Since then, she has inspired thousands with her story.

Drawing from deeply personal experiences, Molly brings audiences, especially students, a uniquely young and current perspective on issues many of them face each day. Her messagethat any challenge in life, whether its bullying, mental illness or a loss of vision, can be overcomeresonates powerfully.

Over the years, as Mollys vision has deteriorated, her confidence and optimism have only strengthened. But not without trying times or adversity along the way. Prior to high school, Molly faced a period of depressionnot because of her lack of sight, but because of numerous encounters with bullies. Molly felt like she didnt have much to live for, like her life was over. Dealing with the retinal disease had been unimaginably difficult. But facing those bullies day after day was even harder.

Molly realized, however, that all of her experiencesgood and badmake her who she is and are meant to be shared. Molly loves people. She knew she had to help others.

She shares her story in the hope of influencing young peopleall young people, the bullied and the bullies, the depressed, the disabledto treat each other with respect, love, patience and hope. Although she still encounters bullies and will have to continue to adapt her life to her diminishing vision, Molly remains positive. Her outlook on life is contagious and reawakening.

As she says, you are not alone, you can get through it and it does get better.

If I can get up every single day motivated and able to inspire just one person, then everything Ive been through is worth it.