By: Lauren Walleser/TRT Assistant Editor—
HYANNIS, Mass.—Over $100,000 was raised Saturday, December 6 as Promise Place School—a residential school aiming to provide a permanent, safe and loving home environment in Cape Cod for homeless LGBTQ youth in Massachusetts ages 12-24—hosted their First Annual Fundraising Gala. Politicians, local businesses, and youth from a number of service organizations were among those who gathered for a show, auction, dinner, and award ceremony, all in support of the School, which is set to open in September 2015 and was founded by Erica Kay-Webster and The Foundation for International Justice.
“Of all the homeless LGBT youth we have on the streets today, 40 percent of those youth will be dead before their 26th birthday, either from suicide, from murder, from drug overdose, from street murders, street crimes, or from human trafficking, and these are statistics that we should not have to live with,” said Kay-Webster. “So we’re asking you tonight, because you’re here, to support us. We need your help to support us, to continue to change the lives of our youth. They deserve that opportunity.”
Much of Kay-Webster’s passion is fueled by her own experience with homelessness. She was rejected by her family at the age of 15 and made her way to New York, where she continued to struggle, taking shelter on the Staten Island Ferry, surviving suicide attempts, and nearly starving to death until she was rescued.
“I wish everyone in this room just for a minute could take yourselves back to when you were a teenager. Imagine yourselves, for just a couple of hours, on the street, not knowing where you’re going to go,” said Laura Farnsworth, director of PFLAG of Greater Worcester and program director of Safe Homes for LGBT Youth, who received the Worcester LGBT Youth Champion award at the event. “Now take that and imagine the first night, the next morning, having to go to school the next day. For our young people across the state and across the country, this is a reality for them. The fact that there’s no place for us to send them is shameful, so it’s my hope that Erica’s vision, that our vision as human beings, will go viral. We need to make this a reality.”
Irene Soderberg, cabaret singer and comedienne, headliner, producer, and director of the show, spoke to the novel nature of the program and fundraiser.
“This is a historic moment. This evening is unprecedented in the history of the world, bringing Promise Place School to fruition, with the unwavering vision and dedication of Erica Kay-Webster,” said Soderberg. “My motto is ‘Honey, I’ll rest when I’m dead.’ We’ve got to keep moving forward and doing everything to make the world a better place for everybody.”
Susanne Beaton, interim executive director and campaign director for One Family, Inc. and chair of the Family Work Group of the Massachusetts Commission to End Homelessness, received the Massachusetts Lifetime Champion for the Homeless Award. Caitlin Golden from the Massachusetts Shelter and Housing Alliance read a letter from Beaton, in which she said the fact that the School will provide permanent housing instead of temporary shelter was “music to my ears.”
“The power of place is transformative,” read Golden. “Taking kids who have been rejected by their families and giving them back purpose and hope is transformational.”
Lazarus Rivera, one of the Gala’s other performers, shared how his own experiences led him to support the cause.
“When I was 16, I was thrown out of my house also, and back in the ‘90s they didn’t have anything like this to help anyone or anything like that, and I was bullied for being openly gay,” said Rivera. “So now that they have stuff like this, I like to support it and be there for them and help them out.”
Other youth also spoke about their experiences with LGBTQ youth-serving organizations and homelessness.
“I believe that when people are constantly surrounded by messages of heterosexism and homophobia, they end up later on in life internalizing it and that therefore turns into internalized homophobia,” one of the youth* expressed. “For young people to feel as if they have no option but to leave their homes or be kicked out of their homes is neither freedom nor equality for everyone in the country. When we are in environments when we feel accepted for who we are as ourselves, it becomes inherently easier for us to be ourselves. It would be amazing, in my opinion at least, for a place like Promise Place to flourish, because then, so many more people could feel accepted as themselves.”
Another youth* spoke specifically about his struggles with homelessness.
“When you’re young, impressionable, scared and innocent, more than any teen would like to admit, it’s hard to tell who’s looking out for you or who’s trying to get something from you, and sometimes the two are one in the same,” he said. “Adults are in this situation for a variety of reasons. Youth, however, are homeless because no one cares. They have no one to turn to, and I know, because that was me.”
PLATINUM sponsors for the event included Eastern Bank, PrizmPR and The Rainbow Times. Hy-Line Cruises and Cape Air-Nantucket Airlines were community sponsors.
“It can be a hard place to grow up being a gay or lesbian person on the Cape, and a lot of our folks who are here with Cape Air are gay, lesbian, transgender people,” said Peter Kokoszka, director of distribution and technology at Cape Air, who also accepted the Humanitarian Award for Sen. Dan Wolf and the Environmental Award on behalf of Cape Air. “We have a need for new organizations. It’s hard for youth sometimes to find a way to fit in, and so this is an important organization that can be serving young people here on the Cape.”
Rana Murphy, Eastern Bank’s senior vice president and regional manager in the Cape and Southeastern Massachusetts, shared why Eastern Bank has chosen to support the School.
“Part of Eastern’s mission is to be all-inclusive, and to really be diverse,” Murphy said. “When we found this opportunity to be supportive of the Promise Place School, to what they’re doing, we were very excited and interested. It’s part of who we are.”
Other highlights from the event included the silent and live auction, drag performances by Miss Diva America 2013-2014 Nikita Le Femme and Dame Kier Sarkesian, singing by Rivera and Soderberg, and surprise performances by David Bermudez, who along with Kay-Webster, is one of the surviving members of the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion.
During the award ceremony, Senator Elizabeth Warren was honored as Woman of the Year. Unable to attend, Stephanie Houghton, Warren’s southeast regional director, read a letter on her behalf.
“I want to thank the Foundation and Erica Kay-Webster for your tireless work to help protect the rights and safety of transgender people across Massachusetts and around the world,” read Houghton. “No one should be discriminated against because of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. As we continue the fight to protect and promote equality, I strongly believe we must do everything we can to create a safe and welcoming environment for all people, gay straight, bisexual, or transgender.”
Gov. Deval Patrick was also honored with the Compassion in Government Award, though he could not attend, and Bob Isadore, president of the Cape & Island Democratic Council, accepted the award for him.
“Massachusetts is home to a vibrant and diverse population. Today we welcome and join all members of the LGBT community in celebrating diversity and their involvement in the Commonwealth and beyond,” Kay-Webster read from a letter from Patrick. “I would also like to thank tonight’s award recipients for their leadership, their efforts to advocate for civil rights and to end discrimination.”
Steve and Barbara Grossman accepted the Massachusetts Straight for Equality Award. Steve, Massachusetts’ current treasurer and receiver general, ran for governor in 2014, while Barbara was the first straight board member for MassEquality, according to Kay-Webster. Steve said Barbara has been his mentor when it comes to issues of equality. Together, the couple provided same-sex benefits to the employees of their business long before marriage equality or equal rights were passed in the state, Kay-Webster noted.
“I cannot tell you how moving it is to be honored tonight,” said Barbara Grossman, speaking to Kay-Webster. “You deserve the honors. You deserve the kudos. You are the one who has turned adversity into activism, hardship into humanitarianism, deprivation into determination.”
Steve Grossman spoke to the mission of the Foundation for International Justice.
“It’s fitting that it has the name justice in it because tonight is an opportunity for us to recommit to those fundamental principles of justice,” said Grossman.
He also noted that while Massachusetts has long since passed legislation for marriage equality, there is more to be done.
“The fact is that even though Massachusetts is one of 18 states that passed and has transgender legislations, we’re the only one of those 18 states that has transgender legislation in its laws that does not incorporate a public accommodations provision within the transgender legislation,” Grossman said. “It is still not okay for transgender people to use public accommodations in the same way they can in 17 other states. We’ve got work to do. We are all activists. We are all citizen lobbyists, and I use that phrase proudly. We lobby and petition our government for equal justice under law.”
Deb Goldberg, Massachusetts’s state treasurer-elect, accepted the Philanthropy in Politics Award.
“I was sitting here thinking about ‘When did I come to know that I was an advocate for LGBTQ issues?’ and it wasn’t something that I came to know,” said Goldberg. “I really believe that it goes back to the way I was brought up, because there was never any question in my mind that anybody on this earth was different from anyone else, and that everyone has the same rights as anyone else.”
The Rainbow Times was honored with the LGBT Champion in Media Award, and Paul and Carolyn Hebert, founders of the Housing for All Corporation (HFAC) and CHAMP Homes, were honored with the Cape Cod Champions Lifetime Achievement Award.
“We were blessed with a gay child, and when I say blessed, that’s exactly what I mean,” Paul Hebert said. “What we do is no different than what goes on in your homes, and for the very same reasons that you do it, we do it for justice. We’ve done it for 2,500 different individuals, and our belief has always been that everybody has the right to have a place to call home, and we feel at home with all of you.”
The Rainbow Times‘ speech from its publisher, Graysen M. Ocasio, and editor-in-chief, Nicole C. Lashomb, stated their support to assist in eradicating LGBTQ Youth Homelessness, and their commitment to Promise Place School, among other things.
“We would like to congratulate Erica Kay-Webster, her husband David, and the board of Promise Place School on this very successful event and we would like to thank them for tackling such a critical initiative needed in the Commonwealth,” read the co-owners’ acceptance letter. “LGBT youth homelessness is an issue that affects and impacts us all. We recognized this from the start. In 2007, our inaugural issue launched a 3 part series on this horrific epidemic. … To date, The Rainbow Times has provided more than two hundred thousand dollars worth of in in-kind and monetary donations to organizations fighting on the side of truth and justice. This can never be for the privileged and few, but instead for our entire community, representing the array of colors in it.”
Kay-Webster noted that the location for Promise Place School is not set yet, though the official announcement will come at the end of December or beginning of January. Meanwhile, other fundraising events are being planned in Boston and New York in addition to this first annual Gala.
The Promise Place Board of Directors includes Kay-Webster, Christopher Morgan-Janes (also Director of Education for the School), Elizabeth McCliment, Lorelei Erisis, Joe Quigley, Rebecca Adomaitis, and Hope Griffin.
*The Rainbow Times does not publish the names of minors.