"There is that blue light at the end of the tunnel. My goal is to make it shine bright," founder Shira Blumenthal says of her anti-bullying campaign
Shira Blumenthal #HatNotHate
Credit: Francis LaMonica

A woman who was severely bullied as a child has turned her traumatic experience into something positive through a hat-making campaign that has brought awareness to thousands across the world.

Shira Blumenthal was 29 when she launched her anti-bullying campaign, #HatNotHate, which encourages people to participate in a blue hat-making initiative for Bullying Prevention and Awareness Month in October.

Now 31, Blumenthal has watched her anti-bullying campaign take off, reaching thousands of people across the globe through school speaking engagements, knitting and crocheting classes, and social media.

“One of the things that I always mention is that everyone can relate to this campaign,” Blumenthal tells PEOPLE of its appeal. “We’ve all been affected by bullying in one way or another. #HatNotHate is just helping us take a stand to it and we’re bringing awareness to it.”

“When I was younger, they told me that being bullied and teased and made fun of… it’s a rite of passage,” Blumenthal continues. “It’s not and it shouldn’t be. No child or no adult should feel the pain that one feels when they’re being bullied.”

Shira Blumenthal #HatNotHate
Shira Blumenthal
| Credit: Francis LaMonica

Blumenthal’s own experience with bullying started in the fourth grade, when a female classmate started relentlessly picking on her for her appearance, style, weight, and name.

“I had curly hair, I was a little chubbier when I was younger… Pretty much anything and everything that you can think of that this girl wanted to make fun of me for, she did,” Blumenthal recalls. “She rallied other people and she made it really hard for me, which led me to really feel bad about myself and come home every day crying to my parents.”

Things eventually got so bad with the girl that Blumenthal switched schools, in part thanks to her “supportive parents.”

“All those things that she said to me and how it hurt, I tried so hard to push them down, almost like a compactor. Eventually, you can only push your feelings down so much and not have them affect you,” she explains. “It was just too much… I had hit my limit.”

“I came home one day … [and went] running into my mom’s arms like, ‘I can’t do it anymore,'” Blumenthal adds. “Feeling that at 9 as a kid who had supportive parents is scary. I can only imagine how kids that don’t have that feel.”

After switching schools, Blumenthal says she “left Shira, the 9-year-old girl, in the past” and moved on from the traumatic time, eventually graduating high school, college, and becoming a brand ambassador for her family’s Lion Brand Yarn Company.

Shira Blumenthal #HatNotHate
Shira Blumenthal with her #HatNotHate team
| Credit: Francis LaMonica

It wasn’t until 2018, nearly 20 years after enduring the ridicule from her fourth-grade classmate, that she was inspired to revisit her past and launch the anti-bullying campaign.

On that fateful day, Blumenthal says she came across the story of a 9-year-old Black girl who was collecting dolls of color in an effort to promote representation for her diverse classmates so that they didn’t feel alone like her.

“I saw her being interviewed, and a light went on,” Blumenthal explains. “I said, ‘Man, if this girl can do that at 9, I can do it at 29.’ … She gave me the courage. She almost was saying, ‘Speak up for the 9-year-olds, Shira. You have that voice. Let everyone hear it!'”

Because she worked for a yarn company, Blumenthal proposed the idea of having people knit and crochet blue hats — the color of Bullying Prevention and Awareness Month — and then handing them out to schools nationwide in an effort to raise awareness against bullying.

She felt hats were a particularly good item to use for the campaign because of its rectangular shape and similar spelling to the word “hate.”

“Anyone can make a rectangle,” Blumenthal explains. “When you take a rectangle and then you seam it up, you have a hat. I felt that it was the most basic, simple, [and] not overwhelming project.”

“When you unravel the ‘e’ of ‘hate,’ you have a ‘hat.’ It just seemed to make sense that, ‘Let’s make a hat instead of hating,'” she adds. “At the same time, when you have 100 people wearing the same thing, it really stands out in a crowd.”

Shira Blumenthal #HatNotHate
Shira Blumenthal with her #HatNotHate team
| Credit: Francis LaMonica

Since that day, Blumenthal’s project has grown globally, with #HatNotHate receiving over 23,000 hats in 2019 alone from knitters and crocheters around the world — a group she has affectionately coined her “blue soldiers.”

Those hats were handed out to students among 60 schools across 30 states last year, Blumenthal says. She notes that each one is unique and individual to the person who stitched it.

“Every hat is different just like we are as people,” Blumenthal explains. “But what brings us all together is we’re all human. We all have bones, we all have blood, we all have organs. We’re all human, but we’re all different. Not one of us is the same. It’s just like those hats. They’re all blue, but each and every one is different. That’s what makes it so special.”

Some of the people who knit and crochet the hats have experienced bullying firsthand and find the process cathartic, Blumenthal says. Others get involved because they want to help and make a difference, or simply learn something new.

Shira Blumenthal #HatNotHate
Shira Blumenthal and her #HatNotHate team
| Credit: Francis LaMonica

Besides sending in hats, Blumenthal says people also frequently send her letters and candidly open up about their own experiences with bullies.

“The way that people pour their hearts to me, I could only think that they’d share with me because they feel so close to me, but yet I haven’t met them,” she says. “To be a holder of all this information is something I take with true honor and respect.”

One particularly moving note that has stuck with Blumenthal all this time came inside a package with 11 blue hats.

“I opened it up and there was a fluorescent orange index card that said the student’s name and gave the date of when he was born and when he killed himself,” Blumenthal recalls. “That was it. There didn’t even need to be a story. That index card was enough.”

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “STRENGTH” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

Those heartbreaking stories push Blumenthal even harder to spread her anti-bullying message. Currently, she is working towards a goal of 100,000 hats by Aug. 1 so they can give them out at schools in October.

Between her loyal hatmakers, March being National Craft Month, and #HatNotHate’s website now having an option for people to nominate their schools to be the receiver of the hats, the campaign founder is confident they’ll be able to reach their goal.

“It’s such an out-of-the-box concept, but because of social media, it is helping me reach places all around the world that I could only imagine,” she says of her campaign. “These groups around the country are amazing because as much as I may have started the noise about this campaign, they keep it alive.”

“It is a lofty goal of 100,000 hats, but I definitely think that we can do it,” Blumenthal adds.

While she continues to make progress and look forward, Blumenthal says she can’t help but look back at times to see how far she’s come.

“I always say when I speak to kids that [with] this experience, I took these lemons and made it into some pretty spicy lemonade,” she explains. “The more and more this campaign grows, it’s not about the girl who bullied me.”

RELATED VIDEO: #Being13: Inside the Secret World of Teens — Bullying

“I’d almost thank her for it. I thank her for giving me a reason to make some amazing lemonade,” she goes on. “I’m a big believer in things happening for a reason. I think I was bullied for a reason so I can make a change now.”

“Sometimes it does get rough, but it shouldn’t be a rite of passage,” Blumenthal continues. “If we could just instill a little more confidence in our kids and people in general, I think that we would be able to get through it. And then, I wouldn’t have to receive any more bright orange index cards.”

“Any girl that might be getting picked on right now, or any boy, or any human being picked on, there is that blue light at the end of the tunnel,” Blumenthal adds. “My goal is to make it shine bright.”

Those interested in getting involved with #HatNotHate or helping the campaign reach their 2020 goal can learn more information here.