(Video by Ash Lopez)
“Two things. One, stay in school. And two is, find your community. You are surrounded by peers who may have felt as lonely as you at some point, share the same stories as you … but you are surrounded but nothing but love and people who cherish you for who you are, and keep that community with you as you travel through life. I love you all.” – Maddy Mokes, Santa Barbara Queen of Pride 2017
As we celebrate Pride Month, let’s not forget about the incredible humans and organizations that help create an inclusive and caring environment for all LGBTQ youth.
The Pacific Pride Foundation (PPF), for example, is a nonprofit organization that provides services and programs to 10,000 LGBTQ+ individuals in the Santa Barbara County. In April, the foundation hosted their fifth annual Youth Connect Conference and PROUD Prom.
“I (was) first introduced to PPF through the youth group … It was a group of teenagers who have experienced the same things that I had, with adults who had good advice for that … It was a community I had not experienced anywhere else,” said Athena, one of the youth attending the event.
Over 200 young people aged 12 to 17 from Central and South California attended the event, many of them LGBTQ+. Allied youth were also invited to attend, an important effort to teach young people how to be an ally and a friend. They took workshops to “learn about themselves, leadership, development, how to support themselves with mental health, and future career opportunities,” explained Colette Schrabam, executive director of PPF.
Thanks to the generous sponsorship of Deckers Brands, the event took place at their headquarters. The event was also supported by UGG, who provided decorations as well as gifted each student with a free pair of UGG slippers.
“Everyone was comfy and cozy and welcomed,” Colette said with a smile.
The youth also had the opportunity to hear from Shadille Estepan from Born This Way Foundation, as well as keynote speaker Sina Grace, who writes and illustrates Marvel’s Iceman.
Sina explained the significance of Iceman to him and his readers.
“It is another person’s story,” he said. “That the only way he can be the best version of himself is if he loves himself.”
During the Q&A portion, a student asked Sina for a mental health phrase he uses to help himself. Sina replied that when he’s down or doesn’t believe in himself, he remembers this print his friend Hannah made for him that reads, “You are better than you think you are.” The facilitator, Patrick Lyra Lanier, then took this moment to ask everyone to say out loud those words, “I am better than I think I am.”
Sina later recounted what it was like to see the students affirm themselves, “(It) was cool, to see the kids say that. And there was one person in front of me that refused to do it until the third time and it was cool to watch that emotional reaction, to see them actually say it out loud and embrace that praise.”
The youth then danced the night away with 15-year-old DJ Young 1 playing empowering and upbeat songs such as Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” even crowd surfing at one point, and facilitating an open and welcoming environment by having the crowd chant “Be kind” and “Born this way!”
During the prom, PPF offered opportunities for youth to talk to someone from their Wellness Team if they felt anxious, depressed, or just needed a break from the social situation. There was also a variety of spaces designed for anyone who needed some quiet, as well as a wall of positive messages on post-it notes in the gender-inclusive bathrooms.
Dancing was momentarily paused for a fierce runway tutorial led by Santa Barbara’s 2017 Queen of Pride Maddy Mokes and Deja Re. The youth strutted, vogued, and posed on the runway to songs like RuPaul’s “Sissy That Walk” and “Call Me Mother.”
Maddy also had advice for the youth: “Two things. One, stay in school. And two is, find your community. You are surrounded by peers who may have felt as lonely as you at some point, share the same stories as you… but you are surrounded by nothing but love and people who cherish you for who you are, and keep that community with you as you travel through life.”
And that’s exactly what the PROUD prom did – create a community. The event connected the LGBTQ+ and allied youth with one another, helped them feel less alone, and provided the tools to be confident and love themselves.
As Stephen Coyne, senior manager of Deckers Brands, said, “It really was a day of empowerment, of becoming your best self, appreciating who you are and celebrating that.”
Happy Pride month! For more information on Pacific Pride Foundation, visit https://pacificpridefoundation.org/, or to find an LGBT Center near you, you can visit https://www.lgbtcenters.org/LGBTCenters or http://www.lgbtcampus.org/find-an-lgbtq-campus-center.