May I tell a short story? I am from a very small town in Tennessee and I fit into the storyline of being this youth that has a family that doesn’t really understand a lot of this. I’m 33 years old and I’ve spent the better part of my life holding that back in the hope of protecting my family from any truth. Because I was afraid I would lose them. There is that line you just don’t cross sometimes. And if you’re a southern Baptist you know all about this. There are all those stigmas that come with that and the idea of coming out to your family and whether or not you’re going to be accepted. So 2 things changed it: within my first month coming here and meeting these youth and speaking to them I saw that they don’t have a car or a job, they don’t have that stuff yet. I do. And it was a punch in the face for me because these youth are 10 million times braver than I am because they tackle that head on and I had cowered away from that. I had hidden it with these concepts of protecting my family and I never really faced it head on. So seeing that, seeing these young people that are so brave inspired me to do that with my family, to become honest with them about everything. It happened. If I were 13 years old and in that situation, where would I end up? I don’t know. I’m not sure. I’ll never be able to know that because I never went through that. But that’s why I’m so glad this organization is here because now even if they are rejected, they have that support system. Back in my days in high school, if this would have been available, I think about all of the benefits of that. I see all of my friends from elementary school into high school that are part of the LGBT community from a small town and it is terrifying. It’s absolutely terrifying. And I spoke to a friend of mine, who, both of his parents passed when he was 5 years old and he said he would give everything he has to be able to have one second to talk to his parents about it, just to even know if they would accept him or not because he’ll never know. Finally, that pushed me over the edge and enough was enough. I’m seeing these brave youth that are tackling the world and didn’t have anything to support them and now they do and I can see a difference. I’ve seen night and day with some of them. They wouldn’t talk and now 3 or 4 months into it they come up and ask you questions and tell you about things and tell you what they want to do, where they want to go and how they want to impact others. That is our idea of success. How are you coaching them to better their lives, what are you giving them that they’re going to be able to give the next group?”
— Earl Johnson

There is no place like home. Photo by Alex Sushil.

There is no place like home. Photo by Alex Sushil.

 

The Zebra Coalition looks like one of those houses you see during the opening credits of a 90’s sitcom about a big family. It’s white, inviting, and cozy. It’s definitely out of place on Mills avenue surrounded by businesses and construction sites. Going inside feels like you’re home for Christmas. The walls are decorated with zebra-themed art, a framed Orlando Magic jersey hangs above the plush couches that face a T.V. set (complete with gaming console!) A shelf by the staircase features endless books, and a large kitchen has a dining area that looks like it’s ready to feed 20. Young people gathered there Friday for the Easter egg hunt. I heard them laughing and competitively discussing how many eggs they would find. “I already see three!” boasted one voice, “Yeah? Well, for every egg you see there are more that you can’t see!” I flashed back to being a kid with my brothers and cousins during our Easter hunts. They’re kids- laughing, hugging, snapping pictures of each other just like kids do.


It’s hard to believe that some of these kids are flatly unwelcome in the homes of their parents.


Zebra Co provides normalcy, a sense of family, a safe and wholesome space for mentors to provide what young people need to thrive- nurturing. On this Easter celebration day, I see the volunteers and staff speckled throughout the house. I can overhear them discussing where decorations should go, when certain events should take place, and occasionally, sternly telling the youth not to touch the eggs until the hunt begins. These are the duties of a parent. It doesn’t look like much, but these adults aren’t just setting up for a holiday party. These adults are providing a safe and structured environment for young people who might otherwise be entrenched in the chaos of homelessness.
The love you experience in youth stays with you for your entire life. It guides you when times are tough, it supports you when you feel like you can’t support yourself. It makes you who you are. Your confidence, your self-worth, your concepts of respect and your values are all shaped through the lens of your childhood experiences. When we offer acceptance and safety, when we fill bellies and check under the bed for monsters, we don’t just help a young person, we help the future of our community by fostering well-adjusted adults. Our jobs don’t end there, either. How many times have you turned to your family for support?


A rejected child has a vital part of the human experience taken away. The Zebra Coalition does everything, and I mean everything, in their power to put it back.


On Friday, I was invited to this Easter celebration. I got to speak to three representatives of the Zebra Coalition, Including Earl Johnson, whose story you read above. Below, you will see our conversation transcribed. I want to let their words speak for themselves.

Zebra Coalition Needs List

 


 

Heather Wilkie: Director

Earl Johnson: Marketing and Special Events Consultant

Brett Burlone: Clinical Manager

Alex Sushil: Special Photographer Friend

And "Me": Macbethian.

 

Me: About how many young people are in and out of here every day?

Heather: We have a caseload of about 35 youth.

Brett: We did a restart count for the year for 2016. I think we just surpassed about 73 clients that have become members with us and I would say about 60% of that has entered our case management or counseling service.

Me: What services are you providing those young people?

Brett: Case management and counseling directly, and then through those services we do assessments.  In case management, we can assess for all needs and then we determine what needs we can provide to them through our services here and what we need to refer to our supports in the community, such as our coalition members, to meet.

Me: All needs such as?

Brett:  Food, clothing, hygiene, housing needs, mental health needs through case management. For our transgender population it could be hormone replacement therapy needs, or doctor or medical needs in general. “Looking for item” needs such as clothing, or our binders, too. Really, the main message I say is we will assess all needs, and any need we find we are looking to meet it or find out how to meet it in our community.

Me: What are some of the circumstances that would bring a young person to Zebra Co.?

Brett: Definitely homelessness. Definitely identifying as transgender or LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] but the most popular identification here would be transgender people looking to get the unique support that most of the community does not provide. Some of the basic needs such as food, clothing, too. So, that ties into the basic needs.

Heather: And our age range is 13 to 24.

Me: What might be the reality for some of these people if Zebra co were not here?

Brett: They would remain homeless on the streets, I would say. Or remain in desperation of those needs, some of the core needs.

Me: The services you provide, does that include transportation to school?

Brett: Oh, yes. We mostly use a bus pass process, so we actually provide bus passes for those who qualify. We are able to use a pretty decent system here in Central Florida with the Lynx bus. And then in emergency circumstances we have a relationship with Mears Taxi- they give us a discounted fee to use.

 

We found two eggs! Photo by Alex Sushil.

We found two eggs! Photo by Alex Sushil.

 

Me: Are there any misconceptions about Zebra Co?

Brett: Oh, absolutely.

Me: What are some that you might want to address?

Brett: The first one is that we are seen as a shelter, like an immediate housing program that can take someone in, right off the bat. Unfortunately, we are not set up that way. There is a lot of work that would have to be done to be in that position. So, we are not immediate housing, we are short term housing- meaning we do a process to qualify someone. And then occasionally, some people do think we are a conversion practice, so they are hesitant. They ask test questions to find out if we are an affirmative program, so some people get surprised when we are not that process.

Me: Tell me about today’s event.

Heather: We do a lot of celebrations. Part of what we really try to focus on is more positive events for the youth. We do the clinical angle very, very well, but we’re also providing meet up support, so today is a celebration for Easter. We have a few celebrations around every holiday and then also once a month to celebrate any youth who may be experiencing a milestone, you know, maybe they’ve done something out of the ordinary or extraordinary and we would highlight them in that area. So, today is Easter. [Laughs]

Me: So, you supplement the positive, supportive family role that maybe is missing from some of their lives, and try to keep that intact for them?

Heather: Exactly. We want to be a safe space and so whether or not you are homeless or in need of clinical services we also want to offer the opportunity to connect with other youth who may be likeminded or have similar interests.

 

Photo by Alex Sushil

Photo by Alex Sushil

 

Earl: That is one of the, I’m sure Heather mentioned this, the “member concepts” of Zebra. As opposed to addressing anyone as a client, or a patient, they are members. They are members of the Zebra family, the Zebra Coalition. So, by becoming a member of this unit it opens the door to any of our coalition partners, as Brett was saying earlier. That is something we are always expanding, so that goes as far as haircuts, or shoes, or anything that an external organization wants to donate whether it is through them specifically, or through a partner that they work with. That is how we grow out our reach. We just make sure people are well aware of the mission that is behind Zebra and why we are pushing forward.

Me: So it’s like a family.

Earl: Correct.

Me: What are some unique challenges that you guys face? It seems like you provide everything, so do you have to turn people away, like if people age out of the process?

Earl: I’m really glad you just asked that about aging out of the program. As Heather mentioned earlier, our age range is from 13 to 24. The way I grade our success is, once they turn 25, where are they going? What are they doing? What are they set-up for?  What have we done between the time we have had them and have been able to coach them and work with them, to set them up for proper success? And that, again, comes through a lot of our relationships through the coalition. Whether that is through sponsorships for school, scholarships for school, job shadowing opportunities, or anything from any new organization which we are sponsored by to give them kind of that feeling of “Ok, so this is what I’m interested in, how do I get to that point? What do I need to do?  Is it just based on experience? How do I do that?” So, whatever we’ve done to get them up to the point where they are now set up for success and have had that family support from the Zebra, that is how I grade our success in this organization.

Me: So you are really mentoring them, preparing them, to go out into the world and be successful adults.

Earl: Right, because you take your average individual that has been stripped of that family concept and they really feel like they are on their own. So Zebra steps in to give that feeling like, you’re not. You’re not by yourself. You have other people that have been through the same situation. They are going through the same situation. There was a member before my time and when they first started working with us they wouldn’t come out of their room and I know that they eventually got to where, you know, they could speak through the door. And months down the road, finally, the door was open. And that is the whole trust concept. Individuals that go through this kind of torment and torture, they find that they only trust themselves. So, we try to break that barrier and show them that you can trust other people. It is massive.

Me: I can’t imagine being rejected by your own family, and how much it would take to rebuild trust in other people and allow yourself to feel like you are part of a family again.

Earl: It is terrifying to think about. And the fact that It happens in this day and age, you know, there are a lot of bad things that are happening. But then, great things are happening, too. I was speaking to some colleagues a while back and we feel like with every step forward that we take in the community, and not just as a community in general but humankind, for every step forward that we take in progress there is always going to be some steps backwards and people aren’t going to fully understand and fully want to. It’s the lack of education, and we have to make sure that we get that information out there, and that’s one of our goals.

Me: How can an individual or a business that wants to help do so? And what are you most in need of?

Earl: We are in need of a lot. [laughs] It boils down to basic necessities and sponsorships for the organization. For any organization, our goal is to let them see the benefit of being a partner with us in the coalition. It’s not just the non-profit, you know, “Thank you so much for your donation we’ll see you next year.” It's a “thank you for donating your time and your energy, and your efforts. Here is what you’re doing that can impact the lives of these youth. Here is how you are changing their lives.” And so that is showing them, again, through the job shadowing components whether that is through their own offices or through a partner, or if it’s through any other type of activity that they want to get involved with. We have our meet-ups like our skills groups if they want to come out and teach people how to do a proper resume or how to do a proper interview, how to express themselves on that level. Or banking classes, or anything like that. Any of the sorts. We have those options to give them that they normally wouldn’t get.  So, that is just, again, through all of our coalition partners that are on board and want to get something out of being involved. They want to make sure that they have a personal impact on the lives of these youth.

Me: Like Brett said, any challenge that comes your way, you want to be able to address it. So, basically anyone can help because there is such a broad range of needs being met.

Heather: Yes and because we are a coalition, we have 26 official partners and of course we work with many more organizations. The idea is that those organizations will become a reference or a resource for the youth in so many ways. And so we have Orange County Public Schools, we have several churches, we have an arts organization, and a food pantry. We try to have a broad range of community partners and resources. Anyone can get involved, they don’t have to be a partner.

Me: So an individual can volunteer, or donate money or food or anything else?

Heather, Earl and Brett [in unison]: Absolutely.

Earl: All of that can be done on our main website (Click here to see their needs list.)  We have a new social push-out on our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram where we announce, on a bi-weekly or bi-monthly basis, what is in need. Whether it’s food pantry items, or it can be a gift card for shoes or clothing items or hygiene items or anything. Anything our case managers come across that is something of a high need point. We make sure we reach out for that, you know, we get a hold of that and let the public know about what is needed so that they can get involved, too.

Me: What would you say to a young person facing bigotry, bullying or rejection?

Heather: Well, I would say that if they are local, Zebra does offer support. The unfortunate thing is that we are here for the 3 counties but we are just 1 organization. We really are staring to see LGBT organizations in other cities- which is a wonderful thing. I think it’s a great time for support, but unfortunately it’s not everywhere. So we do have, you know, a phone number that you could call and we offer that support for you.[877.90 ZEBRA (877.909.3272)] We do a lot of education around that, trying to build self esteem, trying to have a good support system where you do feel safe to talk to someone about what you’re going through and experiencing. An ultimate goal for Zebra is to really have relationships with the schools and we are working with a few schools but to have those strong relationships you have an administrator on every campus where you can go and could feel safe. We have a bullying prevention curriculum that we use to help educate administrators so someone does have a safe place to go to even if they can’t make it here. With youth, transportation is always an issue.

Me: What are your hopes for the future of Zebra co?

Heather:  To be everywhere! [laughs] You know, to expand. To first of all, be able to meet all of the needs of our community first, which would mean being able to go into the schools and provide that curriculum and teach our message and expand on our message. But then, you know, possibly expanding beyond the Central Florida area.

Me: Is There anything in particular you want to say to someone who may come across this interview?

Heather: We are not a safari. [laughs]

Earl: Yeah, there is no baby zebra. [laughs] Well, every now and then we’ll have 1 at an event but there are no baby zebras in the house. I’ve heard that a lot.

 

Heather and Earl Photo by Alex Sushil

Heather and Earl

Photo by Alex Sushil

Heather: You can get involved, you know. I think a lot of people have heard of us and know our brand but they don’t necessarily know what we do so we are here to provide services for the community that are much needed and specific to LGBT youth. You can get involved in any way. And we can also help with training a lot of different organizations that desire cultural competency trainings. We are the resource. And that’s what I would like people to know. We are the resource for LGBT youth in central florida.

Earl: We want people to know that we are the resource for everyone to gain that knowledge and that understanding and, again, it is the lack of knowledge that is terrifying. We want people to not shy away from that and to know that if you are not informed on something, we have that answer and we can give that to you so it’s just about making sure that message comes across. People can say“I may not know what this means but I know how to find out the answer” and that is where we fit in. And that is needed, that is really needed. And another great thing about the zebra coalition in general is just the open opportunities for partners who are interested to get involved and it's great because it is an organization that is local so any kind of corporation or individual that does get involved, they see that happen. They see the benefits of it. So it’s not something far away. Nationwide things are amazing and eventually that is our goal. Being about local community is 2-fold: 1, that is great for us because it gives us the resources to continually give and move forth and 2, It’s great for the whole idea of the cultivation mold. You are allowing people to see what is happening, you can’t miss it because it’s right in your backyard. And once you see it, what is changing and how things are changing for the better, there is just no stopping us. I see it as a snowball effect. A great snowball. The purest and greatest snow that turns into a really great snowman, or snowwoman, or whatever you want. [laughs]

Brett: I want to make sure that it is known that we are here for all youth. There is a misconception that we only help those in really desperate need, but we help youth with any need. There is plenty of youth living incognito; not out to friends or family but they are in school or have jobs. They are welcome to come here and participate and get the support they need, as well. I think it takes those youth with those skills to come here because that also will help impact the youth that may have more needs, as well. It helps bring community to the whole picture.

Alex: How does the outreach work, if someone is out there that needs to know about Zebra Co. and might not , how would that connection occur?

Heather: It happens in a lot of different directions.  I think our biggest presence for youth is social media and we try to do a lot around that and we are working on expanding to have a youth driven social media. We go into the schools, we have marketing materials, community events that are youth focused like Come Out With Pride. We try to become a face of the community as much as we can but we are also limited with a number of staff so trying to get ourselves and the message out there.

Brett: One of our next step visions is to develop an ambassador program for youth and for businesses and other community providers. Our goal is having representatives for Zebra in other points in the community, to recognize and be aware of youth. We create points of contact by bringing knowledge to anyone that gets involved.

Earl: Volunteers are very vital to our existence. Whether or not they are a direct arm of Zebra we want to make sure they are all informed with proper messaging so that’s where our cultural competency experiences come into play and even with myself and other staff members, there is always more to learn.

Heather: We have a list of 500 terms of identifying, we try to stay cool and current. [laughs]

Me: In the past few years I learned so much more about respecting things like pronouns and things I’d never heard of before.

Heather: I’m glad you said that. We open up anything we are doing with introducing ourselves and our pronouns.

Earl: A lot comes from word of mouth and referals that’s where our outreach programs come into play like getting in touch with the GSA’s (Gay Straight Alliance,) getting in their face and letting them know we exist so if a situation does come up they have a resource. One thing I’ve been very excited about is that a lot of faith based organzations have gotten involved and it’s a great thing

ME: It’s like a cultural shift.

Earl: Exactly. In my day it was like: "We don’t understand it so it’s not here and it’s not happening. Shut it down." Now, faith based organizations are reaching out and asking “What do we do? How do we get involved to help this person grow?” Instead of asking “How do we change it?” That is where we come into play because helping a person is helping them grow into who they are going to be. The percentage rate of the suicides is terrifying. In a perfect world, to get that eliminated is in all of our hearts and our minds.

 

That's me and Heather! Photo by Alex Sushil

That's me and Heather!

Photo by Alex Sushil


 

Special thanks to Heather Wilkie, Brett Burlone, Earl Johnson, the Zebra Coalition, and Alex Sushil.

Zebra Coalition Website: http://zebrayouth.org/

All photos by Alex Sushil. Check out more of Alex's photography here: http://www.sushiphotog.com/

 

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