Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013 | 10:24 a.m.
Juan Garcia-Lopez could feel his legs shaking as he took to the podium and stood before a microphone.
Facing an audience of more than 500 students, the West Career and Technical Academy sophomore started to speak, his voice echoing across the cavernous gymnasium.
For the next five minutes, Garcia-Lopez shared one of his most personal experiences with his peers: the sense of helplessness he felt as he struggled through elementary school, unable to understand a word of English.
The 15-year-old recalled the sinking feeling he felt when he realized on the first day of kindergarten that he couldn't communicate with his teacher and classmates. He shared the sad emotions he felt when he was picked on because he was different, but he also told of the pride he and his mother felt when he mastered English and enrolled in an accelerated English class in middle school.
"I just wanted to tell my story about how difficult it was for me and other kids like me," Garcia-Lopez said later. "I was so nervous, but I'm happy that I did this."
Garcia-Lopez was one of eight West CTA students who shared intimate tales of vulnerability and courage in the face of discrimination and prejudice during an hourlong school assembly Wednesday.
The emotional event was part of USA network's "Characters Unite" storytelling tour. Since October 2010, the cable network has drawn attention to National Bullying Month by visiting cities across the country to help local students share powerful stories with their peers to foster greater tolerance. Las Vegas marked the tour's 11th stop.
"We believe that life is richer when we see beyond stereotypes," said Fred Haug, USA Network spokesman and tour organizer. "Storytelling is one of the most powerful media we have to combat hate, prejudice and discrimination."
Over the past week "The Moth," a group of professional storytellers from New York, worked with eight West CTA students, coaching them on how to tell their personal stories effectively.
The stories students have told on the tour are moving. In Washington, D.C., a student's story of being cyberbullied moved her tormentor in the audience to tears after she realized how much her online taunting hurt the student speaker.
In Las Vegas, students shared stories of fighting religious and gender-based bigotry among peers and parents, and learning how to become more inclusive of others and the importance of being true to themselves.
Madison Santoli, a 17-year-old senior, spoke of her battle with anorexia. She told the audience of how she struggled with her body image as a competitive ice-skater and dancer and the realization she felt when she saw how much her eating disorder was hurting her family.
"I remember the first time I skipped a meal, I felt empowered … but I knew I was destroying my family," Santoli said. "I didn't want anorexia to control my life. I wanted to control my life."
West CTA Principal Amy Rozar said she was surprised by the stories her students shared. While it's located in affluent Summerlin, the magnet school draws students from across the valley. Those students bring with them diverse childhood experiences.
"This was a great opportunity to bring a personal touch to our school experience," Rozar said. "Every one of these stories was touching."
USA Network and sponsors R&R Partners' Flip the Script Nevada and Cox Communications brought singer Carly Rae Jepson and other celebrities to Las Vegas for a concert to raise awareness about bullying last week. USA network and Cox also presented a $1,000 check to West CTA on Wednesday to help school officials continue the dialogue about combating bullying.