Safe Schools Desert Cities provides a Youth Zone with entertainment, food, and games at the annual Greater Palm Springs Pride Festival. (courtesy SSDC)

LGBTQ+ youth today are more susceptible to bullying and violent behaviors than non-LGBTQ+ students, notes one Coachella Valley youth advocate. The declaration clearly points out an ongoing need to assure schools remain safe places for LGBTQ+ students.

“There’s a national survey put out by The Trevor Project, and it found that 45 percent of LGBTQ+ youth have seriously considered taking their own lives—and then when you narrow that down to transgender kids, it goes to more than 50 percent,” says Eric J. Ornelas, Board President of Safe Schools Desert Cities. “These kids are already struggling with issues that adolescents face, but on top of that, they’re having to deal with bullying and discrimination.”

In that respect, Coachella Valley seems to be in good hands with Safe Schools Desert Cities, the stalwart organization that empowers LGBTQ+ youth, their allies, and Genders & Sexualities Alliance (GSA) advisors, providing significant opportunities to foster community and individual growth through guidance, advocacy, education, resources, recreational activities, and pathways for self-expression.

“Take a look at today’s headlines, particularly the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida, and the more than 300 bills have been introduced nationally in states targeting the LGBTQ+ community, and you can see how it can affect kids negatively,” Ornelas adds. “And while it’s widely thought it’s so much easier to be LGBTQ+ today, there are new issues and a rising resistance to equality going on—these kids must fight that.

“Our goal at Safe Schools Desert Cities is to teach youth on how to endure and feel empowered, and that they can do something about it. That’s why we are doing what we do.”

Students enjoy a variety of activities at the Safe Schools Desert Cities Empowerment and Leadership Camp (courtesy SSDC)

One significant event the organization is hosting hopes to raise awareness about some of these issues and create an even deeper sense of unity among allies and students. On Sept. 10, Safe Schools Desert Cities will host an advisors luncheon. The occasion allows for board members to meet face to face with GSA advisors who help students.

“It’s our chance to gather in a room together,” Ornelas says. “Sometimes, you can feel like you’re the only person in the school supporting these kids. But then to realize that there’s an entire valley-wide group all on the same team. That’s important.”

The event also provides an opportunity for advisors to learn what Safe Schools Desert Cities will be able to provide in the coming year.

Recently Safe Schools Desert Cities received a grant from the Inland Empire Community Foundation through the Coachella Valley Fund. The funds are earmarked for the organization’s unique scholarship program, assuring that it continues.

The Burton/May Pride Award, for instance, is one such scholarship. It provides support for educational expenses for enrollment in an educational program following high school graduation. The expenses typically include tuition, course fees, on-campus living expenses, books, and other resources. Recipients are selected based on an application, which includes references.

Another scholarship, dubbed the Financial Assistance Award, assists with everything from vocational school or college application fees and/or deposits and SAT/ACT exam costs to living facility deposits and test prep courses.

“The past two years have been pretty challenging for so many of us,” Ornelas says. “The one thing we’d like people to know is that we’re here. And we always welcome support. Funding is a big deal. And if folks would like to contribute, whether it’s financially or as a volunteer, we always welcome the community’s help. We are fully funded by the community, and it’s so important we remain a ‘community.’”

Learn more about Safe Schools Desert Cities at safeschoolsdc.org.

This article originally appeared in the Desert Sun, August 2022.

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