Young with heart: Zebra Coalition’s Youth Council act as ambassadors for LGBT equality

By : Ciara Varone
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Orlando – The Zebra House has always been a safe space that takes in LGBT youth, but now the Zebra Coalition is reaching outward, into the community, with a Zebra Youth Council.

Nine young people, ages 17 to 24, have been serving on the council since this past summer. In addition to their role as ambassadors for the LGBT youth community, the council members are tasked with helping Zebra Coalition to better understand the young people it serves. The Coalition is a network of Central Florida social service providers, government agencies, schools, and colleges and universities that provide a full continuum of services to at-risk LGBT+ youth.

Heather Wilkie, director of Zebra Coalition, says the council formed after groups at Rollins College and the University of Central Florida contacted Zebra.

“The idea behind the youth council is that they serve as ambassadors for Zebra, so they can go back to their respective schools and become advocates in talking about raising awareness for the mission, which is to serve LGBTQ+ youth,” Wilkie says.

Shane Young, 17, was appointed as the council’s treasurer in August, but he’s not new to Zebra. Young, who is transgender, says he started using Zebra’s counseling services about three years ago.

“Without [Zebra], there aren’t any resources for the youth in the LGBT community. There’s the Center and there’s stuff like that, but it’s for 18 and up,” Young says. “A lot of places don’t have somewhere where you can go when you’re under 18. I don’t know what I would have done.”

The youth council meets weekly to plan events and activities. With the help of Zebra Coalition, members see their ideas come to fruition, and look into what can be improved for next time.

“You’re planning the things for other people to enjoy, so it’s nice,” Young says. “When we attend it, we can see the other people and how much they like it or if they don’t, we can ask them questions.”

Young recently planned an event for Transgender Day of Remembrance. He says he thinks the intimate, home-like setup of the Zebra center is an appealing setting for these events.

“We give you the option to walk away if you’re feeling too emotional, and sometimes you can’t do that everywhere,“ Young says.“This is more of a safe environment for people than being out in the open.”

Members Ana Suarez, Grace Zottig and Melanie De La Paz all consider themselves LGBTQ allies and all chose to volunteer at Zebra as part of the community outreach component for their Intro to SWAG (Sexuality, Women and Gender studies) class at Rollins College.

Suarez, 22, says she has always been fascinated by the way the LGBT community has been marginalized, and the psychological analysis and waiting period required for those seeking gender reassignment surgery is especially shocking.

“People are allowed to change the shape of their nose or, you know, alter themselves in drastic physical ways just for cosmetic reasons, and they don’t have to go through any sort of evaluation,” Suarez says. “But someone who know that inside they’re one way or another, they’re not allowed to make that choice.”

Suarez was recently appointed social media ambassador for the council.

“We need youth to drive that,” Wilkie says. “[The council] helps us to be able to say, ‘Hey, this may be a way that we want to go in this direction, because the youth are interested in this.’”

Zottig, 20, noted the role the council plays in Zebra’s mission.

“It’s hard to say that anyone is going to love something unless you’re working directly with the people that you’re serving,” she says.“We work as a team to really figure out what events or what activities will be useful.”

Zottig recalls the bullying her friend endured in seventh grade, simply for being gay. These experiences help drive her work.

“I think if more people decided to put their checkbooks away and decided to come out and volunteer, whether it’s here or anywhere, a lot of our issues would, not necessarily disappear, but the people affected by them would see compassion and feel hopeful.” Suarez says.

18-year-old De La Paz notes that the council members are there for a reason.

“We might have completely different lives, go to different schools, but this is kind of what unites us,” she says. “We stay focused on that.”

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