Working together to empower today’s youth

I work in a small high school in Gloucester County, New Jersey, with about 100 students in each grade. As a student assistance counselor, I typically help students with mental health issues or drug and alcohol abuse, but I also counsel students who are struggling with sexual orientation. I try my best to connect them with community resources so they have support after graduation. Since my formal training in this area is limited, I’ve been looking for different ways to increase my ability to help these students.

When I heard about the LGBTQ Youth Empowerment Initiative workshop offered by the Tyler Clementi Foundation at Rutgers University-Camden, I jumped at the opportunity to attend. Thanks to funding from the PSEG Foundation, the event was free and it provided a whole day of speakers, workshops, food (always a draw for teenagers!) and resources. With our administrators’ enthusiastic approval, I gathered up a dozen excited students, and we made our way to the workshop.

For these students, just being able to attend an event like this was a huge morale boost. The LGTBQ community doesn’t have a large presence in our small school, so for them to spend a day with students from other schools who have similar backgrounds was affirming and reassuring. They came back beaming.

During the day, I participated in workshops specifically designed to advise educators and other adults – focusing on ways to help LGBTQ students and the resources available throughout our region. I learned that there is a lot more support out there than I had previously realized.

Fast forward to the present, and I now know of a variety of LGBTQ programs that I can refer my students to for the support they need. For example, a student at our school who is transgender recently was having a tough time. Thanks to my training, I found a place for him to talk about his concerns that offers support both during his senior year and after graduation.

The new school year is in full swing, but several students already have asked me if we’ll be attending the workshop again. My answer? “Absolutely!”

Through an initial $10,000 grant for the PSEG Foundation, the first LGBTQ Youth Empowerment Initiative began at Rutgers University–Newark in 2013. Based on the success in Newark, the program expanded to Camden in May 2017. This expansion is designed to encourage New Jersey public high schools across the state to participate in LGBTQ-affirming youth events. These workshops aim to improve the health and well-being, academic performance and graduation rates among LGBTQ students.

Debbie Marrero, Student Assistance Counselor, Clayton Public Schools

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