MORGAN HILL -- Since his days in elementary school, Joshua Toch endured teasing and pushing for the way he spoke and moved.
Now, the 18-year-old Toch, who was born with cerebral palsy, has spun his experiences into an anti-bullying message so powerful it has captivated audiences, turned around a former tormentor and won him a prestigious award.
He insists that having a disability does not mean he is disabled.
Toch recently received a $36,000 award for visionary community service. He was one of 15 Jewish teens nationwide to win a Diller Teen Tikkun Olam award for projects representing the Jewish spirit of repairing the world.
"The courage he has is absolutely inspiring," said Brad Ledwith, past president of the Rotary Club of Morgan Hill, where Toch launched his speaking career.
Born with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck that deprived his brain of oxygen, Toch was expected to live a limited and short life. Therapists helped him learn to talk and walk. But he has defied medical predictions.
After he stopped physical therapy in ninth grade, he joined the cross-country team at Live Oak High -- even though it required training for his neck muscles to support his head. He was elected treasurer of the sophomore class and of the Interact service club.
Despite having no speech and debate training, he entered Rotary's annual speech contest. On his second try as a sophomore, he spoke about being taunted for his disability.
"Do they actually think," Toch said about his classmates in that speech two years ago, "they can call me 'bobble-head' behind my back and that I won't hear about it?"
He went on to cite worrisome statistics: One in seven K-12 kids report being bullied, perhaps as a result, 14 percent of teens think about suicide and 7 percent attempt it.
Toch urged Rotarians to refrain from workplace bullying and to instill respect in their children -- and to tell them "that they're loved and cherished, so that if they're ever bullied, they come straight to you."
As he finished his speech two years ago, the room of 120 people was silent. "You could hear a pin drop," Toch said. "It was one of the most magical moments I've ever been in."
Ledwith said, "It was one of those speeches that just tugs at your heart."
Months later, people were still congratulating Toch on his speech. "And I was like, how do you remember it, it was one speech out of 10?" he said. "I thought, 'OK, this actually resonates with people, what can I do?'½"
So he started an organization, Mind Before Mouth, to spread the word: Think about what you're going to say. He assembled a panel of young speakers to talk about what it felt like being bullied or assaulted. He not only talked about being teased for his speech and movement, but also challenged cruel Holocaust jokes and put them in perspective as he spoke of family who perished in death camps.
After one speech, one of Toch's former tormentors approached him. "I'm so sorry, Josh," the boy said. "I had no idea."
Toch responded, "It's OK. But if you are really sorry, could you speak about it?"
The young man is now among Mind Before Mouth's speakers.
They've been invited to speak around the state. Toch assesses his audience and adjusts his speech while delivering it. "I jot down some notes and give it -- I always read the crowd as I'm speaking to them."
The Helen Diller Family Foundation honored Toch last month for his work and also how he accomplished it. "He went out and found partners and allies and supporters both among his peers and adults, and served as a role model and catalyst for them," said Adam Weisberg, director of the Diller Teen Initiatives. "He took his idea to the next level."
In August, Toch will enter UC Berkeley, where he plans to study business. He will use the $36,000 award for his education, and share it with his fellow speakers. "It's only fair," he said.
Toch said that, with a network of speakers, Mind Before Mouth will endure his move.
What has motivated Toch to reach out to others?
His parents brought him up to be a normal kid, he said, but to never forget that it was a blessing to be alive. And he has expressed his gratitude with a determination to make things better.
Besides the Diller award, he has won other scholarships, was runner-up in the American Legion Boys Nation -- and met President Obama -- and was named 2014 student of the year by the Morgan Hill Chamber of Commerce.
"I am really learning, the more I do for the world, the more the world does for me," Toch said. "I know this sounds cliche, but by doing the right thing, it all comes back around."
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/noguchionk12.