Emmariah Wyss has a message for her classmates: Words matter.
The 13-year-old Bay Shore resident and Bay Shore Middle School seventh-grader has made a name for herself advocating for disability rights and compassion. For the past four years, she has brought the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign to the school district and encouraged the community to stop calling people “retard.”
“It’s very hurtful to people with special needs,” she said. “My brother has special needs, so it’s close to my heart.”
Wyss said she and her brother, Jackson, 8, who has cerebral palsy and attends a special-needs school, are close and she wants to protect him.
Tonya Wyss, Emmariah’s mother, said her daughter came home after attending a student council meeting one day in third grade having heard the “R-word” for the first time.
“We had a conversation about it, how it’s not a kind word,” Tonya Wyss said. “She was just curious, so we went online.”
That is how the family discovered the Spread the Word to End the Word, a national campaign aimed at ending the use of the “R-word” with support from the Special Olympics, Best Buddies and the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation for the Benefit of Persons with Intellectual Disabilities.
“She said ‘Mom, is that something I could bring to student council?’ ” Tonya Wyss said.
Emmariah Wyss started out by hosting a pledge day at Gardiner Manor Elementary School in Bay Shore, where students can pledge to stop using the word on the first Wednesday in March each year. Four years later, her annual pledge day has spread to two district elementary schools, the middle school and the high school.
Last year’s pledge even included signatures from the Bay Shore school board, which honored Wyss for her work. At this year’s pledge day, held last week, more students than ever signed the Spread the Word banner, she said.
“We had lots of signatures, lots of people signed and pledged not to use it,” she said.
Wyss also speaks at classes about the issue and has received attention from local media.
The seventh-grader said she doesn’t love the attention she gets for her work and would prefer that people focus on not using the word.
“I like that the issue is getting attention,” she said.
Jackson Wyss is very supportive of his sister, the family said. He has his own “Spread the Word to End the Word” T-shirt and bracelet, even if he’s not quite old enough to understand the concept.
When Emmariah Wyss isn’t at one of her many extracurricular activities, she is helping take care of her brother at home and in his baseball league, where she volunteers as a buddy, her mother said.
Tonya Wyss said she is proud of her daughter and her work.
“She just said, ‘I think I should tell other people what we learned,’ ” the mother said. “She’s a typical kid, but the amount of awareness she’s created is quite incredible.”