May 1, 2013 | by Peter Rosenstein
Working to build a stronger network for youth
SMYAL, Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders, gay news, Washington Blade

SMYAL leaders unveiled a new logo, name and expanded mission at an event last week. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Many may not know the history of SMYAL. The organization was formed in 1984 when local youth service professionals and community activists organized a conference on LGBT youth issues after learning that “cross-dressing” youth from the local school system had been hospitalized at St. Elizabeth’s Public Psychiatric Hospital. From this conference, the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League was founded to meet the needs of LGBT youth living in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area.

Since its founding nearly 30 years ago, SMYAL has grown to become an organization with an annual budget of more than $700,000 and a staff of seven. Today, SMYAL serves LGBTQ youth in a wide assortment of programs.

Last week the acronym SMYAL took on a new meaning. The Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League officially became Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders. Same acronym, new definition. I must be honest I like the old meaning better and I think it has more relevance to the ongoing work of SMYAL. While they will do more work training and mentoring advocates and leaders, they will keep their programs that assist all youth and we know that most youth, as most adults, aren’t leaders but rather followers and meeting their needs is as important as ever. But that aside, by either definition SMYAL is an amazing organization and continues to deserve the unstinting support of the entire community.

In the last quarter of 2011, SMYAL’s board of directors, along with the staff, began a strategic planning process that has led them to this rebranding and to add a new mission. They will be working closely through a collaborative agreement with the Gay-Straight Alliance network to replicate their program in this region and build a strong D.C.-area GSA network. SMYAL has long served youth in the entire metro area and by supporting and strengthening the GSA network in the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia they will be able to reach and help many more young people than ever before.

In a recent conversation with SMYAL Executive Director Andrew Barnett, an amazing young man and leader, I learned some things about my community I hadn’t known before. From the age of 12 I realized I was different but couldn’t put a name to it. What I did know is that as I was going through puberty my interest in sex was related to men not women. But back then there were no organizations like SMYAL and as a result I was 34 before being comfortable enough to come out. Andrew told me that today LGBT youth are actually coming out at the age of 12 and 13. Because of that, GSAs, which were once needed only in high schools, are now just as crucial in middle schools. We have certainly moved ahead by leaps and bounds but the fact that our youth are coming out earlier than ever before doesn’t mean that their teachers, parents or even friends are ready to accept them. So organizations like SMYAL and the GSAs are more important than ever before.

As part of its new mission this summer, SMYAL is planning to implement an Activist Camp for 30 LGBTQ youth and will organize three youth-led GSA training summits one each in D.C., Northern Virginia and Maryland. They will be hiring a part-time Youth Leadership Specialist to assist with program implementation and contracting with the GSA network for staff training, technical assistance, program curriculum and materials. A very ambitious undertaking to say the least.

As SMYAL grows, serves more young people and takes on new projects, it will be expensive. The estimated three-year budget for these new projects with the GSA will be more than $300,000. So I urge all those who are donors to SMYAL already to dig a little deeper this year and for those who haven’t donated before think about SMYAL when you think about your charitable contributions. While $300,000 may sound like a lot, it is a drop in the bucket if SMYAL can impact the lives of the thousands of children in our area who are sometimes struggling to grow up and learning to live full and productive lives.

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