Orlando Youth Alliance gives $14,000 in scholarships

By : Anna M. Johnson
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The Audubon Park Exchange community room, hidden above East End Market, buzzed with conversations ranging from the political climate of Central Florida to the effectiveness of the lighting in a production of Les Miserables. The students leading those talks wouldn’t be able to study politics or theatre without the help of local LGBT group Orlando Youth Alliance.

OYA serves LGBTQ children and adults between the ages of 13 and 24 in their three Central Florida locations. OYA specifically focuses on offering a community with safe spaces for self-expression. They hosted their reception for their six scholarship winners on Wednesday night.

Organization CEO Michael Slaymaker says OYA has provided support for over 1,600 youths since its inception in 1990.

“Our idea is to make sure that none of them feel alone and that suicide is the answer,” Slaymaker says.

They’ve been giving out scholarships for eight years. The money is all donation-based, some from individuals and some from partnered organizations. This year they gave out over $14,000.

It’s free for any LGBT youth to attend OYA’s weekly support meetings or bi-monthly social nights. The group is facilitated by volunteers and its board of directors. A crucial policy of theirs is to not “out” any youth in public and keep any personal information within the confines of the group.

Maguire Benton, who goes by Mag, is one of this year’s scholarship recipients. OYA gave her a support group unlike any she’d had before. The group helped her find her way after a low period during her senior year of high school.

“I was immediately welcomed,” Benton says. “It was so nice to have people who cared so much about me.”

Two other scholarship recipients, Thomas Williams and Cody Kennedy feel the same. Both value the friends that they’ve made through the group.

Kennedy’s seen people become more involved in the LGBT community because of OYA.

“This past year’s Pride, we had a lot of people come out that hadn’t ever been to the event before,” he says. “That’s probably one of my favorite moments – getting at least 30 kids out to experience that.”

Three of the scholarship winners, Emily Mound, Samantha Fuentes and Allen Barrett won the award last year as well.

The students range widely in where they’re going and what they’re studying. One is in the Emergency Medical Technician program at Seminole State College, another is going to the University of Central Florida to study anthropology. Slaymaker says that the scholarships can go to any student pursuing an education in what they love.

“If we can help kids go on to a post-secondary education and be the future leaders of tomorrow, then we’re doing something right,” he says.

Benton says that while the money is helpful, OYA gave her more than just some monetary stability. It gave her a place to exist and thrive without imposed ideas of who she has to be.

“In my scholarship essay, I wrote ‘I don’t really know what I am right now,’” she says. “The great thing about OYA is that it’s allowed me to be who I want to be and not put a label on myself.”

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