Peter Ruiz was only 14-years-old when he had to start looking out for himself. He was living at home with his mother and siblings, and she had just moved them from New York City to Orlando. Ruiz’s mother also suffered from mental health issues.
“When we moved down here, my mother’s schizophrenia started to get worse,” Ruiz says. “From the time I was 14 until I was 16, she started to have episodes where she imagined I would physically abuse her, and she would call the cops and have me arrested.”
During the two year period Ruiz would spend days, sometimes weeks, in a juvenile detention center. When she again had him arrested on his 16th birthday, Ruiz had had enough.
“When I went to court, the judge, who had known me for quite a while at that point, because I had the same judge throughout this, I told him I didn’t want to go back home,” Ruiz says.
Ruiz was placed in DCF custody and was adopted by his biological brother’s godmother.
“Things were going well at first,” Ruiz says. “I was back in school. I had always been a really good student so I kept that up. During my junior year I got into theater and started performing and acting, it was something I was really starting to get engaged in and that was not something she approved of. She kept telling me theater was going to turn me gay.”
Ruiz came out in his senior year of high school and continued with theater, even applying to colleges where he could study acting.
“I had thought about studying physics, but theater was calling my name,” Ruiz says. “I told [my adoptive mother] that, and that really upset her. She stopped cooking for me, stopped feeding me altogether. I had to find a way to feed myself on top of going to school.”
Ruiz came home from theater rehearsals just days before his high school graduation.
“No one will let me in,” Ruiz says. “I found out that she did not want me to come back, because she said I was gay and that this was not acceptable.”
Ruiz was taken in by his drama teacher for the weekend, and that Monday the high school put him in touch with the Zebra Coalition.
“They immediately had a place for me to stay. They helped me through the process of getting clothes, getting school supplies, they helped me to get food stamps so I could feed myself, all those basic things I needed to survive,” Ruiz says.
The Zebra Coalition is partnered with Rollins College and helped Ruiz get set up with a student with whom he stayed for the summer. He began college classes in the fall of 2011.
“[The Zebra Coalition] supplied me with a support system,” Ruiz says. “I always had someone I could talk to if I was having an issue, whether it be personal, financial or whatever, they made it so I didn’t feel alone, especially as I was getting ready for college.”
Ruiz credits Zebra Coalition as the resource that enabled him to attend college.
“Most people when getting ready to leave for college have their parents or family to help them; they already have this built in support network, but that was one of the things that was taken away from me, and Zebra made it easy for me to rebuild that support network,” Ruiz says. “College was the most stable time I have had in my life, and I had people looking out for me, and they were in my corner and I have Zebra to thank for that.”
Ruiz came to the Zebra Coalition as it was just getting off the ground and in 2015, Ruiz became the first “Zebra kid” to graduate from college.
“Without the Zebra, I would probably be living on the streets. I don’t think I would have gone to college. I mean there is only so much my high school could have done for me, and then once I graduated, I wouldn’t have had anything. I don’t know where I would be but I don’t think I would be thriving, I don’t know if I would be surviving,” Ruiz says.
Ruiz is now living on the gulf coast in Sarasota where he is an acting apprentice with the Florida Studio Theatre. Ruiz hopes to continue his education by getting his Masters in acting and eventually a PhD in theater history. He is also an LGBT activist which he credits the Zebra Coalition for helping him become.
“My experiences with The Zebra Coalition made me want to advocate for those who have been marginalized by society. I did a lot of college activism and I link it very closely to the fact that I had the Zebra backing me up,” Ruiz says. “I feel like I have to give back to my community.”
Ja’leel Denson, 21
This fashionable scholar dropped out of high school at an early age, and says it’s haunted her ever since. Keeping her eye on the prize, she decided to move away from her “crazy party life” in Tampa to focus on getting her GED through Zebra Coalition funding.
“Before the Zebra Coalition, I felt like I had no job opportunities and my purpose was partying,” Denson said. “I knew if I didn’t get out of that lifestyle soon it would be too late for me to pursue anything. Unfortunately, everywhere I applied wanted a high school diploma. Zebra helped me find my passion for business management and fashion, and has helped me control my fierce attitude into something more cheerful.”
Ja’leel has got big plans in the works to study marketing at Seminole State College next fall, a place she’s heard is nothing but trans friendly. “They put my right name on my student I.D., so thumbs up to them,” Denson said. “I can’t wait to get my AA in the next few years.”
When she’s not studying, you’ll catch Ja’leel booking commercials or walking the runway for her blossoming modeling career.
“I still like to have fun,” said Denson. “I did just celebrate my 21st birthday after all. It just doesn’t consume my life anymore. I’ve got more important things to do.” Her proudest moment since joining the Zebra Coalition: seeing the smile on her grandma’s face after Ja’leel received her GED last month. “My grandma was so upset when I dropped out,” said Denson. “To see her crying tears of joy, instant relief washed over me. I moved to Orlando to get my life on track… a lot has changed for me.”
Nicole McIntyre, 22
“I felt like I was just living, just there,” McIntyre says. “I’ve never had a true home. Zebra taught to live for something and to further my goals. They’ve showed me the bigger picture in life.”
Nicole says feelings of accomplishment overwhelmed her after learning she was approved for GED funding last month.
“I can’t believe I’ve come this far, it’s surreal,” McIntyre said. “The positive environment at Zebra really helped me through a lot.”
Her career goals include opening up her own hair salon after completing her GED to peruse her love for cosmetology.
“I want to own a business that runs itself,” said McIntyre. “I’m going to be my own boss.”
Nicole says she’s gained positive exposure from her successful situation (such as appearing on PBS to tell her story and being interviewed by numerous publications), and she’s learned something very valuable while spending time at the Zebra Coalition: the importance of having a voice.
“I want to be an outspoken example for the trans community, and for everyone who feels like the only way out is the worst way,” McIntyre says. “My advice to LGBT youth would be stay in school, and handle your business. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Both Ja’leel and Nicole received GED funding through The Jefferson R. Voss Education Fund program at the Zebra Coalition.
After going through an interview process, case managers at the Zebra Coalition chose them to receive the scholarships based on their educational goals and needs.
Raemond Emmett Mathews, 16
Raemond Emmett Mathews is your typical Sarasota 16-year-old. He likes writing and art, and as he approaches his junior year in high school, he is thinking about where he wants to go to college. Mathews also identifies as pansexual.
Pansexual is not limited in sexual choice with regard to biological sex, gender or gender identity. While this might seem like something that brings about extra struggles in your teen years, Mathews is very able to deal with it and credits a very specific reason, ALSO Youth.
“It’s a safe place you can go to meet other youths and feel normal,” Mathews says.
ALSO stands for Advocacy, Leadership, Support, Outreach and was created in 1992 by individuals who were alarmed at the statistics documenting high rates of suicide among gay and lesbian teens.
Today, ALSO Youth is a non-profit that provides peer support services, educational programs, advocacy and referrals for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex and questioning youth (ages 13 to 21), their families and friends and the community.
Mathews says they cover many topics of interest and education that have helped him to open up more with family and friends.
“I would definitely say that my confidence has been boosted,” Mathews says. “For a while I was very quiet and introverted and being exposed to kids my age, knowing I wasn’t so different and alone, made me more confident and happy with who I was. I’m more comfortable with me and that has made me more comfortable with others.”
Mathews has been going to ALSO Youth since he was 14 and says that the last two years have helped to not only shape who he is but have guided him to what he wants to do in the future.
“Well I don’t have anything cut in stone yet as far as what I want to do in life,” Mathews says. “I think ultimately I want to be some kind of therapist, helping others like ALSO does. I think that’s really where I want to go.”