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Celebrating the Power of Us with Zebra Youth

BY: Trevor News

Executive Director of Zebra Youth Heather Wilkie has lived in Orlando, Florida for 17 years and calls it sort of a “beacon city in the state of Florida… central Florida and Orlando is kind of like a blue dot in the middle of the state. Honestly, central Florida is pretty welcoming. But go outside of the tri-county area, or even in some of the rural areas outside of Orlando, it’s not as supportive — and the youth know that.”

For Heather, who works to make sure LGBTQ young people in central Florida feel supported, community means everything. Zebra Youth, an organization based in Orlando, provides mental health and housing services for LGBTQ young people ages 13 to 24. Zebra Youth also runs a drop-in center and hosts meetups, groups, events, activities, and community training. 

“We need community so much right now,” Heather shared. “There’s so much negativity happening in Florida, as we all know, but also across this country. What we need is to come together.” Against a backdrop of hostile and quickly-escalating anti-LGBTQ legislation in Florida, and across the country, Zebra Youth makes sure LGBTQ young people in central Florida have what they need. “Amidst direct attacks on the trans and nonbinary community, we have got to hear our supporters loud and clear,” Heather continued. “The more support we can get, the more power there will be behind the community and advocates that work to lift us up.”

People at a Pride Parade

Heather herself has seen the impact community support can have on people’s lives. In the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting, which happened almost seven years ago in Orlando, Zebra Youth provided crisis response for young people in the community. “Even if they weren’t directly impacted, everyone had a link to it,” Heather explained. “Some young people maybe aren’t quite old enough to remember Pulse, but they’re growing up in the system, so there’s a trickle down effect.

LGBTQ young people are feeling the impact of recent legislative action: nearly 2 in 3 LGBTQ young people said that hearing about potential state or local laws banning people from discussing LGBTQ people at school made their mental health a lot worse. Heather frankly identifies this current political moment as a crisis, and worse than it has been in a long time. “It is bad, and it’s okay to feel that, but I do believe that we are going to get through this. There’s no stopping us; we are on the right side of history and I do believe that we will restore our rights. But it’s going to be a long time to unwind what’s happening right now.”

Support and care has a massive impact: LGBTQ young people who had access to affirming homes, schools, community events, and online spaces reported lower rates of attempting suicide compared to those who did not. Organizations like Zebra Youth are so important because they provide incredibly important and life-saving resources to people who need them but may not have them in reach, which can make all the difference. Community support makes it possible for LGBTQ young people to weather storms of adversity and find people who bring them joy and safety.

People at a Pride Parade carrying a rainbow colored banner that reads Olympia High School

To LGBTQ young people, Heather shares: “Just know that you have people on your side. You have an army behind you of people who really do love and support you and have also gone through it.”

Sue Cardenas-Soto is a Copywriter at The Trevor Project, the leading suicide prevention and mental health organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning (LGBTQ) young people. If you or someone you know is feeling hopeless or suicidal, our trained crisis counselors are available 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386 via chat, or by texting START to 678-678.

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