Guest Column: Saying goodbye to Zebra Coalition

By : Dexter Foxworth
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Dexter Foxworth

I am driving in traffic on my way to our Zebra Coalition Youth Center. It’s summer in Florida and I can see the rain behind me, following me, laughing at me as I try to beat it and get thru traffic. I pull up to our youth center and the rain falls. Of course, my umbrella is sitting inside the office. The unforeseen benefit of this is that with nothing to do but wait for the rain to let up, you have some time to reflect, to look back, to take stock. And what better time to do that than when you are just days from ending your time with a job that has changed your life.

Three-and-a-half years ago, I stepped into my new office to begin my journey as director for the Zebra Coalition, a nonprofit with a mission to provide support, services and programming to Central Florida’s LGBT+ youth. I spent my first two days meeting youth in our residential program and learning. Fast forward two weeks later; I was on the side of the road, in my car ready to walk, no run, away from it all.

My first week on the job was filled with late night calls from youth contemplating suicide, including a 2 a.m. call from a young person whose family kicked him out of their house because he was gay and trying to assist the high needs of youth in our residential program. There was no easing into this work. It was a swift shove into the deep end of a bottomless pool of critical needs — needs from youth in our community who reached out to Zebra Coalition because their community had failed them.

At the end of my second week, I started to truly wonder if the mission we had set out to accomplish, providing support to young LGBT+ persons in need, just wasn’t meant to be.

I had just gone through an almost 24-hour workday trying to manage calls from our crisis hotline and assist a now homeless youth on his 18th birthday transition into our residential program. My usual chipper self was fried and I must have looked like hell as I pulled over on the side of the road. These kids needed support but it was too much for me, for one person. “I’m done. I’m putting in my notice tomorrow”, I said to myself. At that moment my cell phone rang. It was the just turned 18 year-old I had spent half the day with transitioning into our residential program. “Mr. Dexter, thank you for my birthday cake and for your help,” he said. There was a long pause and I could hear him crying. He was scared. His family had just kicked him out of the gated community and the home he had known his entire life. Just because he was gay. Then he asked, “Will you be here tomorrow for breakfast?” Now I’m in tears, which isn’t uncommon, as I confirmed, “Yes, I will see you tomorrow morning”.

It is still pouring rain. There is almost zero visibility but I can still make out our youth center. All I can think about are the hundreds of young people who have come thru those doors the last few years and the support our team and community have provided. We have come so far and grown immensely, becoming the national model for programming and services for LGBT+ youth.

If that kid hadn’t called that night and I would have walked away from it all, would Zebra Coalition have accomplished everything it had? Maybe. But I know for sure, I would have missed out on so much.

The rain is letting up. Of course my first thought is deciding if I can get to the building without getting my hair and shoes soaked. I can’t walk into the youth center looking like hell. Those kids will call me out.

My boyfriend sends a text message, “Can we talk about the house?” There is only one thing that would take me away from Central Florida and the work at Zebra Coalition. After a long distance relationship for some time, we are moving across the country together. It’s time; time to make “us” a bigger priority.

It’s been a very emotional journey for me: tremendously satisfying, but also challenging and bittersweet. I am forever grateful for the gift to lead the work of the Zebra Coalition. I am so lucky.

On one hand, I feel a sense of incompleteness, walking away when so much more remains to be done — more housing, resources for trans* persons and additional support to assist with the continued growing rates of substance use and bullying. Most of all, making our community a more safe, supportive and welcoming place.

I feel comfortable in leaving, however, because of the people who will remain: our staff, board members, volunteers and community of coalition partners. But I don’t know how to say goodbye.

There’s too much overlap now. Too many of our staff, board members, partners and youth are like family. Too much of my own autobiography and my heart is embedded in the story of Zebra Coalition. Maybe the answer is, “Don’t say goodbye.”

So, let’s not say goodbye just yet. Let’s just say, “until the next time.”

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