Second annual fundraiser celebrates love and benefits local LGBT youth support program
One night last spring around 8 p.m., Harbor High School teacher Ron Indra picked up his ringing home phone. The high school student on the other end of the line told Indra he had 15 minutes to convince him not to take the bottle of his mother’s Ambien and drink the bottle of Jack Daniels sitting in front of him.
“He told me he was gay [and that] he could not come out to his parents—they had just left for the movies,” says Indra, who has taught for 28 years, oversees the Harbor High School Gay Straight Alliance, and is coordinator for the Safe Schools Project of Santa Cruz County. The Safe Schools Project is a program initiated by the Queer Youth Task Force (QYTF) that teaches tolerance and handling of harassment to students and staff in Santa Cruz County middle and high schools.
“For about an hour and a half, I talked with him … I asked him to come to a [Gay Straight Alliance] meeting. I said, ‘I know sometimes it feels like you’re the only kid out there, but I have a whole classroom full of kids that come every other Thursday. You don’t have to identify yourself, just come and meet the other kids.”
Although not always as severe as this particular situation, Indra says incidents of desperation due to harassment are common for gay youth in Santa Cruz County. Off the top of his head, he recounts in detail several occasions of violent harassment in the local region in recent years—incidents that range from the common offhanded derogatory use of the phrase, “That’s so gay,” to online bullying and name calling, to physical kicking, hitting, and other violence.
By the end of the semester, the student who had phoned on the verge of suicide was attending regular meetings. “I just got an email from him,” says Indra. “He is in college now.”
Indra says he receives “literally hundreds” of grateful emails from former students who say the existence of support programs for LGBT youth kept them alive through their younger years.
According to Stuart Rosenstein, chair of the Queer Youth Task Force and founder of the Safe Schools Project, part one of Safe Schools’ mission is to increase awareness in students, teachers, and administrators of the struggles queer youth face. Part two is to enforce the 2000 California State Law AB537, Student Safety and Violence Prevention Act, which mandates that schools must be safe for LGBT youth, as well as youth perceived to be LGBT.
“The Safe Schools Project believes in working with and not against school districts,” says Rosenstein. “The [school district’s] mandate is the same as our mandate, school districts want each student to thrive.”
On Feb. 12, local photographer Rebecca Stark will host her second-annual Santa Cruz Love Project (SCLP), a portrait fundraiser, to benefit the Safe Schools Project. Stark chose Safe Schools as this year’s recipient in part because she was moved by the six suicides committed by gay youth due to bullying in recent months across the nation. She says the SCLP will be a day “for lovers and loved ones.”
“I have a love-based business,” says Stark, an award-winning wedding and portrait photographer. “Everybody that walks through my door is here because they love someone or something. Either they’re getting married or they have children, or just love the people in their lives. I am surrounded by love, so I wanted to give back with the love theme in mind.”
The SCLP is a daylong event held Feb. 12, the weekend before Valentines’ Day, at Stark’s downtown studio. Anyone interested can walk in or call in an appointment to have their portrait taken in her studio.
No one will be turned away, but a donation toward Safe Schools of $10- $100 is encouraged. Portraits taken during SCLP will arrive by email to participants the evening of the event.
The Safe Schools Project receives some fiscal support through their affiliation with the Diversity Center in Santa Cruz, as well as from the county school district, but, in order to expand, it is in need of increased funding.
According to Rosenstein, Safe Schools plans to allocate all funding raised at the SCLP toward expansion of the program. This would include paid interns, expansion of the social media outreach, development of curriculum materials, and transportation to bring queer youth to conferences with proper chaperones.
“We tend to focus on bullying in safe schools, and teen suicide, and we forget sometimes that these kids in middle and high school [also] fall in love,” says Rosenstein. “It makes me think, ‘What are we doing a as a community to support loving relationships among our gay youth?’ With the [Santa Cruz] Love Project, I am really excited to be celebrating love, however people define love.”
The Santa Cruz Love Project will take place Saturday, Feb. 12 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at RSP Studio, 2027 N. Pacific Ave., near the Clock Tower. Suggested donation $10-$100. For more information, visit qytf.org/qytf-projects/safeschoolsproject or rebeccastarkphotography.com.