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Bayside boy tackles racism

A 16-year-old Bayside resident with extensive community service under his belt was chosen last month as one of 100 students from across the nation to travel to Washington, D.C., and take part in a program that examined bigotry.

Walt Bonne, who lives in Bayside and is a junior at the High School of American Studies at the Bronx’s Lehman College, spent Nov. 15-18 in the nation’s capitol, where he attended lectures on prejudice, toured the White House and visited the Holocaust Museum.

Bonne was among 100 students picked by the national Anti-Defamation League to attend the program. He said he qualified for the trip because he is the president of a Bayside chapter of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, a worldwide Jewish youth group for high school students that engages in community service.

“I loved meeting people from all over the country,” Bonne said. “I think what had the most profound effect was that I always grew up thinking people from across the country were so different. But I became good friends with some poor kids from New Orleans and some rich kids from Beverly Hills. I loved all of them. They were all great people.”

Bonne said the conference included a number of memorable guest speakers, including Ichiro Fujisaki, the Japanese ambassador to the United States, who is working on a memorial for a Japanese man who gave visas to Jews during World War II, as well as a black American World War II veteran who grew up in segregated Alabama and was one of the first soldiers to discover the Nazis’ concentration camps.

Another speaker was one of the former students on whom the film “Freedom Writers” was based. That movie followed the true story of Erin Gruwell, a Long Beach, Calif.-based teacher who inspired her students to keep diaries in which they wrote about issues of tolerance amid the backdrop of 1992’s Los Angeles riots.

Bonne and his fellow students also visited the Holocaust Museum and the White House.

“My favorite part was the sessions where we spoke about hatred,” he said. “The Holocaust Museum was also a highlight of the trip. This was not my first time I was at the museum. But the first time I went was with a Jewish camp group and this time most of the students were not Jewish. So, it was interesting to see from a different perspective.”

The students were greeted by actor Kal Penn, who has been picked by President Barack Obama’s administration to act as its associate director of the White House’s Office of Public Engagement.

As part of the conference, Bonne is now supposed to return to his school and start his program to promote tolerance.

“I think I might start a Holocaust awareness program or a group that deals with anti-Semitism or defamation,” he said.

Reach reporter Nathan Duke by e-mail at nduke@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

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