HARLEM — Fifth grader Javonte Stewart didn't know Joel Morales, but when he found out the 12-year-old boy committed suicide last year after being bullied at school, Javonte identified immediately.
"I get bullied a lot too," said Javonte, 11, who attended an anti-bullying event Wednesday night outside of the Jefferson Houses, an East Harlem public housing complex where Morales hung himself in the bathroom. "I see other kids getting bullied and sometimes I don't say anything."
Preachers from Metro World Child, which works with children in tough neighborhoods here and abroad and which Joel attended, organized the event to commemorate the boy's life and to empower children like Javonte to battle bullying.
"It's time for us to stand up and stop being bullied," said William Perez, a reverend with the group.
Speakers used stories and examples from their own lives to show how they triumphed over bullying and taught children that they can play a part in ending bullying by not participating in the humiliation of their peers.
Joel hanged himself on May 29, 2012, after his family says he was repeatedly bullied in school because of his small stature, good grades and the fact that his father had committed suicide.
He had transferred schools after a group of boys knocked on his door and then threw sticks and a metal pipe at him when he answered. The family says they plan to file suit against the Department of Education and the New York City Housing Authority.
"Schools need to be more aware of when this bullying is going on and do something about it, not just stand there," said Joel's sister, Richeliss Salazar, 24.
Since Joel's death, life has been rough.
"It feels like it happened yesterday," said the boy's brother, Richard Salazar.
Salazar, 26, was wearing a shirt with Joel's likeness drawn on the back and the words "Lil Brother."
The boy's mom, Lizbeth Babilonia, 43, says she's been in therapy trying to understand Joel's death and soothe her deep grief.
When she stepped up to address the crowd in Spanish, Babilonia, could only get out a few sentences before she became too choked up to speak. She said later that she wanted to prevent other parents from living through the pain she has endured over the last year.
"I'm going to do everything possible to end this bullying," she said as her daughter interpreted.
Bullying is a major problem in this country. One out of seven students has been a bully or has been bullied. The peak years for being bullied are the fourth through the eight grades.
Each month, 282,000 students across the country say they've been bullied, with 90 percent reporting negative side effects from the incident such as increasing anxiety, falling grades and a decline in the number of friends, according to the National Education Association.
"When you see something happening that's not right, speaking to a parent or an adult can make a difference," said Assemblymen Robert Rodriguez, who addressed the children.
Javonte's aunt, Livial McClellan, who is also his guardian, said she was concerned about how being bullied was affecting her nephew and had begun monitoring him even more closely. When she saw the anti-bullying effort she wanted him to attend.
"No mother wants to lose a son," she said. "Parents have to come together and start patrolling the schools to stop this."
Javonte, enjoying the candy and pizza at the event, said he felt more empowered to stand up to the kids bullying him and other children and to ask for help from his teachers.
"Maybe if I was there to be Joel's friend he would still be here," he said.