ALSO gears up for prom fundraiser

By : Zach Caruso
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Sarasota – ALSO Youth wants to give you a second chance at your prom. And they’re giving you that chance with ALSO Youth: Prom 2014 on October 11th at 6:00pm at The Francis in Sarasota.

A non-profit that provides peer support, activities, educational programs, and workshops to the LGBTQIA community of southwest Florida, ALSO Youth hosts an annual celebratory gala, and this year’s theme of a second chance prom is a unique one that was inspired by the very youth the organization is dedicated to helping.

“About a year ago, our board members did some focus groups and talked with the youth in the area about what kinds of things they would like to have, and an alternative prom was one of them,” says ALSO’s executive director Donna Hanley.

“This past May, ALSO hosted its first alternative prom for youth ages 14-20. It was held at the Out-of-Door Academy in Lakewood Ranch, we had over 130 youth from more than a dozen schools, and it was very successful.”

The success of the event led ALSO to consider bringing the idea back for the gala.

“The gala committee sat down and started planning for the October gala and started discussing ideas and themes and someone said ‘What about a prom?’,” says Hanley.

“When we were selling tickets to the youth prom we had a lot of adults saying ‘Man, I wish I had this when I was growing up, I’d love the chance to relive my prom,’ and we thought ‘This is a great idea.’ And now as people are buying their tickets they’re all so excited.”

“The great thing about this event is that we had a lot of volunteers from the original alternative prom who wanted to be on the gala prom’s committee,” says ALSO’s program director Molly Swift.

“So we had a lot of leads on what kind of entertainment we wanted to have, what DJs we wanted to use, so luckily we were able to tap into those resources.”

The gala is set to be hosted by Sarasota’s own Joey Panek, with entertainment by DJ Richie Rain, and will include a photo booth where guests can take home complimentary photos. The night will also mark the conclusion of Stand Up Sarasota, a week long anti-bullying campaign put on by ALSO.

“This is our third annual Stand Up Sarasota campaign,” says Swift.

“This year we have, Sarasota local, Joey Panek who has been working in our center with kids over the summer in what we are calling Youth Focus Groups, to try to make the most engaging and entertaining presentation and discussion that he can take into middle and high schools the week of October 6th-10th, and it focuses on social media and cyber bullying. Things like phone apps, and the online ways that kids can either hurt or help each other, it’s changing every day.”

Stand Up Sarasota is just one of numerous ways that ALSO strives to aid the LGBTQIA community in the area.

“We’ve been in Sarasota for over 22 years, and we provide support and advocacy for youth with a central focus on the LGBTQIA group of youth,” says Hanley.

“At its core, we operate a drop-in center, a safe nonjudgmental space for youth to come to and spend time with other youth as well as with adults who are similar to them and understand the challenges that they are facing out in the world, whether that be because of their just being teenagers, or because of a difference or perceived difference in their lives.”

And because of what ALSO is able to give to the community, the community is willing to give back to them in any way they can.

“It’s cliché to say it takes a community, but it really does,” says Hanley of the preparation for this year’s gala.

“We have a committee that is formed of a few co-chairs from our board, and the rest of the committee is made up of community members who want to help with our mission. The person doing our graphic design is someone who lives in my community, she’s a friend of mine, and she’s donating a lot of hours putting together the initial marketing material, the programs, the invitations, and the people doing the raffle committee or the decorating committee, it’s all donated time by them to come and help us.”

And even after 22 years of service, ALSO Youth is still looking for new ways to expand and help the community as much as they can.

“We recently had some brainstorming sessions and of course some of that conversation is about our initiatives, our goals, and our focus, and awareness is a big one, we want it out there, we want every youth who would possibly need our services to know that we are here,” says Hanley.

“We would love to branch out and open up some satellite offices or help someone to open up something similar.”

As the gala approaches, Hanley and Swift are already looking ahead to what comes next, but admit that they’ll take the time to stop and smell the corsages as well.

“Our next event is not that far away, it’s our Turkey Trot 5K on Thanksgiving morning, and I’m running in it, so I’m already starting my training for that as we speak,” says Swift with a laugh.

“But the gala is going to be a great time.”

“We’ll be welcoming people in and making sure they’re comfortable and happy,” says Hanley. “But there will definitely be a point in the night when we can relax and have some fun.”

For more about ALSO Youth and the ALSO Gala: Prom 2014, as well as ticket information, visit www.alsoyouth.org.

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