April 26, 2012 | by Dionne Walker
Pointing the way

Jorge Valencia, director of the Point Foundation, at last year's event. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Point Foundation, with offices in New York and Los Angeles, boasts doctors, lawyers, filmmakers and even the nation’s youngest openly gay mayor as alumni of its scholarship program, which has connected gay college students with millions in financial support and a robust professional network for more than a decade.

Yet organizers say there remain countless LGBT students whose educations are cut short by limited funds and unsupportive families. And even as LGBT youth find more mainstream acceptance, interest in the innovative scholarship program has not dissipated.

In fact it’s growing, say organizers who will host a May 3 fundraiser meant to jumpstart donations and boost financial support for the expanding pool of scholars. The event will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Equality Center (1640 Rhode Island Ave. NW). Tickets are $75.

It will feature remarks from founders Bruce Lindstrom and Carl Strickland, as well as success stories shared by some of the Foundation’s growing crop of alumni.

Organizers are finalizing this year’s recipients from a field of some 2,000 applicants, up about 33 percent from last year. Scholars will be announced in June.

“We’re getting a lot more applications from geographically diverse parts of the country, also people of color and women,” says Jorge Valencia, Point’s executive director and CEO. “We’re very happy with that, a lot of that has to do with our outreach efforts.”

The Washington Cornerstone Society event — named for large gift donors — will be one of eight the foundation plans this year to help support the roughly 75 scholars it sponsors annually.

The amount of each scholarship fluctuates based on the number of scholars, but officials say the funds help cover everything from tuition to living expenses for undergraduates and graduate students at institutions across the country. The competitive qualification process involves a 10-part application and culminates with phone and in-person interviews.

Each year, Valencia said, the pile of applications gets thicker.

“That’s why these Cornerstone events are so important,” he says. “We need to be able to raise more money to support these scholars.”

The scholarship program’s continued success is bittersweet, however. Valencia says it’s evidence that there remains a lot of work to be done in boosting acceptance of LGBT youth.

“I hope one day there isn’t a need for organizations that serve underserved communities,” says Valencia, explaining that though scholarships are not limited to scholars who face rejection from their families, those students still comprise many recipients. “The opposition is fighting even harder to make these young people all over the country and all over the world really feel less than equal, so the need is just as high as ever before.”

For Ashland Johnson, rejection came not from her family, but from her employers.

“I worked at Morehouse School of Medicine, my boss found out I was gay and I was fired,” says Johnson, who channeled the messy experience — which eventually involved the American Civil Liberties Union — into a desire to practice LGBT civil rights law.

Johnson had studied English and planned on being a professor before the 2006 incident but soon found herself looking at law schools — and looking for money. In Point Foundation, she says she found both financial support and a commitment to developing fully rounded students through leadership training.

“I saw they were really more than a paycheck,” says Johnson, who graduated in 2011 and now works as policy counsel for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, in Washington.

Scholars are required to complete community service projects benefiting the LGBT community; in exchange, Valencia says they receive support through the duration of their academic career, training opportunities and mentors in their field.

The latter can be invaluable as young professionals navigate complex fields, says Daniel O’Neill, a 2011-2012 scholarship recipient and aspiring primary care physician. Through his program mentor, O’Neill says he has expanded both his knowledge of HIV treatment and his vision of where medicine can take him. He plans to spend time working in San Francisco this year to learn even more about medical issues largely impacting gay and lesbian patients.

“They’ve accelerated my ability to pay it forward and help the LGBT community,” O’Neill says of the foundation. “They’ve galvanized the passion of mine to affirm that I’m part of this large LGBT community.”

Scholars also gain access to the foundation’s large network of prestigious alumni, including one who epitomizes Point’s growing influence.

Alex Morse, mayor of Holyoke, Mass., is the nation’s youngest openly gay mayor and a Point Foundation scholar.

“The Point Foundation assisted me financially as a student at Brown University,” he said in an email. “But more importantly, it introduced me to an intergenerational network of successful members of the [LGBT] community from all across the country. It helped give me the confidence I needed to achieve my goals and set me on a strong path into the future.”

 

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