While driving two LGBTQ youth from their foster group home to Formally Yours in Tampa Bay, Jelani Brooks overheard them discuss their dreams of finding the perfect gown and suit for a dance. The two girls wondered out loud if they would be accepted by the organization.
As the activities coordinator for the Children’s Home Network, which works to provide compassionate services for at-risk children and families, Brooks was familiar with the organization. It was founded more than four years ago to help teens in the foster care system and other underprivileged youth.
The two girls, one a lesbian and the other transgender, had already suffered enough trauma in their young lives. The idea of being judged as they searched for evening wear in front of strangers had them on edge – but when they arrived at the shop in Temple Terrace, they discovered their fears were unfounded.
The Formally Yours volunteers pampered them and the girls immediately felt accepted.
“To have a place where I can take all my kids where they go through dozens of dresses and suits to find one that fits them is truly a blessing,” Brooks says. “Not only is everything free, but the convenience of it being a one-stop-shop to pick everything you need is great.
“From when we got there to when we left, the staff was nothing but welcoming to the young ladies,” he continues. “They felt comfortable and didn’t push their views or ideas. They just said to them, ‘What is it you like? That’s what we will look for.’”
The brainchild of co-founder Laura Reynolds and her team, Formally Yours began with a mass email looking for eveningwear, shoes and jewelry for teens preparing for prom, homecoming, military balls and other formal dances.
Yvonne Marrone, the outreach coordinator for the Guardian ad Litem Program in Hillsborough County, happened to be one of the recipients.
Marrone immediately wanted to volunteer with the new program. She and Reynolds detailed their needs via Facebook and were overwhelmed with positive responses from those willing to donate new and gently worn items.
“We were asked by those in need for some prom dresses,” Reynolds recalls. “You know that you always need clothes – shoes, jeans, those sorts of things – but we didn’t think from the beginning that you would also need formal wear. We shared the email and it just blew up.”
“It started to snowball,” Marrone adds. “People started calling to find out where to drop stuff off. It took off a little faster than we expected. It started with teens in care and we broadened it as we saw the need and as we got calls from other people in the community.
“People are just so giving of amazing items,” she continues. “So many like-minded people are willing to donate their time and talents to make this happen. This is so beyond ‘it takes a village’ … Anyone who donates to Formally Yours is part of our family.”
The team helps youth search through color-coded clothing and accessories, makeup, lotion, perfume and shoes to find precisely what they need for their special evenings at no cost.
“We got to the point where we said, ‘Why are we just going to give them a prom dress?’ Why can’t we elevate this and give our teens a shopping experience, something that they might not get?’” Reynolds explains. “In talking to some of the teens that came in, a lot of them had never been shopping before.”
As for the LGBTQ teens Brooks brought to the space, one searched through racks of pressed suits while the other fantasized about finding her dream pink ballgown.
“There was one hanging up,” Brooks recalls. “She didn’t like it, but we convinced her to put the dress on. That girl was in tears. She tried the dress on and fell in love with it instantly.”
The gown fit like it was made for her. It’s just one example of Formally Yours working to provide a warm and welcoming space and service for LGBTQ youth.
“We want to create a safe space at all times, especially when you’re talking about kids in the foster care system,” Reynolds says. “We don’t ask gender, we ask ‘what do you want? A dress or a suit? What can we do to make you comfortable?’”
More than 500 teenagers have benefited from the program since its inception. Marrone says Formally Yours has received donations from churches after red carpet events and tuxedo shops that have gone out of business.
“That kind of community support has been incredible because we realized it wasn’t just dresses that were needed,” she reiterates. “There’s no judgment from us – it’s such a treat to watch these kids bloom. They walk in with their heads down, frowns on and not wanting to try on a dress or suit. We ask them questions and keep building a dialogue with them, giving them the possibility of trying something on. Before you know it, they’re in the dressing room making that big decision.”
The staff works hard to push aside their tears, smiling when recipients ask when they need to bring their formal wear and even makeup back. They don’t understand what they picked out is theirs forever.
“Many of the kids have never had this experience,” Marrone explains. “They don’t understand the options that they have here. These kids were given such a horrible start in life – and if for one magical moment we can make them feel special, make them feel normal, we owe it to every kid.”
“We understand that if we’re going to make a safe place for one, we have to make a safe place for all,” Reynolds stresses. “When they walk through these doors, there’s no judgement at all.”
While their movement was beginning in Tampa Bay, a tragic death brought a nonprofit to life in South Florida. Out My Closet was founded by LGBTQ activist Michael Narain after a patient’s suicide in 2013.
Narain had become the young man’s therapist while his patient was in a methadone clinic. As a child, his mother trafficked the patient in exchange for crack, and he became HIV-positive due to the assaults.
To endure his childhood trauma and combat depression and anxiety as an adult, he got involved in drugs and pornography. The clinic was his attempt to get clean. Sadly, he took his life after the weekend of Pride.
Narain regularly commented on and admired his patient’s fashion sense, which included a yellow Nike shirt he wore repeatedly. “He presented that ‘all is well, I’m fine,’ but … this young man wanted the same thing that everyone wants: love and acceptance.”
While still processing the young man’s death, Narain received word about three gay teens in need of resources. He knew he had the skills and background to offer them counseling – but as someone close to their age, also had an excess of nice clothing he could donate to help.
“I often kid that gays come out of the closet so we can have more room for our clothes,” he muses. Narain dropped off the first 30 articles of clothing and sat with the kids to listen to their stories.
In that moment, he knew he wanted to do this more than once.
An idea to honor his late patient and help the underserved LQBTQ community took flight. He would create a nonprofit that brings clothing and sets up a free popup shop at local organizations and shelters.
“The idea developed, grew and got better,” he says. “From those 30 deliveries we have grown to 30,000 deliveries. We also have outfits, shoes, accessories, toiletries, makeup – the whole mobile popup shop experience.”
Out My Closet gives guests the empowerment to choose for free what they like, what suits their style and body type, and what identifies with their gender expression. Their services are offered to LGBTQ teenagers to those in their upper 20s.
While clothing donations are often not quality, Narain and the Out My Closet team inspect every piece of clothing to ensure the choices in the shop are suitable for the season and fashionable. What is most needed by the nonprofit is sponsorships and access to corporate sites to set up the popups.
Not only do they provide everyday-wear fashion, but like Formally Yours they help furnish looks for prom, quinceaneras and other special events requiring evening wear.
In November, the nonprofit also hosted a special event for trans women in honor of Transgender Day of Remembrance.
“This day is to reflect on those that passed. We created a day that effectively honors this day but gives flowers to, honors and cherishes the living,” he says.
“We called it Trans Day of Resilience, where we wined and dined and treated our transgender women of color. This is the population that is murdered endlessly and abused and targeted. They go through so much struggle.”
Out My Closet set up racks of gowns and cocktail dresses for the evening. They featured heels and luxury bags by Kate Spade, makeup, jewelry and even photoshoots.
“Then we ended it with a runway fashion show to celebrate our eighth anniversary with what the ladies obtained that day.,” Narain explains. “They had a great time. I would love to expand into Central Florida, but it all comes down to funding. My team is all in their 30s with other jobs and this is a volunteer process. The vision is Florida, New York and California.”
As a youth himself at 16 years old, strong in his faith, a deacon told Narain that he would be a missionary and heal people. He didn’t initially pay much attention to the prophecy but later reflected on it given his founding of Out My Closet.
“One day, I was driving home and thought, ‘We’re a mobile agency that goes to different organizations, and we bring hope, light and love to those that are lost and need these elements of support and resources,’” he says. “The word I was told was fulfilled.”
Seeking to provide a safe space for LGBTQ teens was something a group of parents in Sarasota dreamed about in 1992. They were alarmed by the rising trend of suicide rates among gay teens. Today, data from The Trevor Project shows that at least one LGBTQ youth between the ages of 13–24 attempts suicide every 45 seconds in the U.S.
Wanting to create a haven for these young people to find love and acceptance, the parents formed ALSO Youth to cater to LGBTQ youth ages 13 to 24. It stands for Advocacy, Leadership, Support and Outreach.
“We have a place for them to come three to four nights a week and we have activities for them, play video games, eat, and socialize,” ALSO Youth Executive Director Mickey Stone says. Services are now offered in both Sarasota and Manatee counties.
The organization recently started offering free one-on-one counseling services with a licensed therapist at the counselor’s office, online at home or online at the center. They also reach out to the community by training Gay-Straight or Gender-Sexuality Alliances in schools and by giving presentations for the faculty on diversity and inclusion.
Stone recently introduced ALSO, Jr. as a part of ALSO Youth as well. The programming caters to LGBTQ youth who are 10-12 years old.
“Before I started working here, I was a middle school teacher for 19 years,” Stone explains. “One of the things I’d noticed over the past five years or so is kids are coming out of the closet earlier and earlier, especially with trans youth and kids trying to figure out their sexual gender identity and needing a place to go.
“We’d gotten several phone calls and emails from parents of 10- to 12-year-olds who were looking for a place for their kids to go and hang out with others who were questioning like they were or who already figured out who they are,” he continues. “They wanted to have a place that was safe for them to talk about it.”
ALSO, Jr. started as a monthly program in July 2020. Through a series of grants from the Greenfield Foundation and more, funding has allowed services to grow to once a week, offering the same resources and counseling available to ALSO Youth.
“We skew the programming to talk about issues that they are dealing with, which may not be the same issues that a 16 or 17-year-old student is dealing with. We try to make it more about self-expression and self-awareness, learning to be comfortable with who you are.”
ALSO Youth has done that through a partnership with the Out-of-Door Academy for nearly a decade as well. Now in its eighth year, ALSO Prom is an annual high school prom for LGBTQ youth, friends and allies between the ages of 14 and 20. They’re encouraged to “come feel accepted, affirmed, and celebrated!”
“We noticed that some of the LGBTQ youth in the community weren’t comfortable going to their own school prom, or they were looking for a place where they could go to prom the way they truly wanted to and with who they wanted to go with, where they may not be able to do that in their schools,” Stone says. The last celebration welcomed more than 250 teenagers.
“It’s our biggest event of the year,” he adds. “We have a closet that we save dresses and suits. Kids are allowed to come in and pick up something to wear.”
The prom is scheduled to return Feb. 12. Its theme is One Magical Night and will feature a cottage core decor. Guests are encouraged to dress as they feel comfortable or in the cottage core style.
“They can interpret one magical night in any way that they want,” he notes. “We’re going to decorate like a starry night outside this year. The Out-of-Door Academy has a big courtyard and a basketball court will be the dance floor. We’re going to decorate everything to make it magical.”
A DJ will perform and the teens can vie for the title of “Best Dressed” and “Most Friendly,” categories attendees get to vote on to win prizes.
“I love being able to have the effect on kids that we do,” Stone reflects. “I like being able to offer support and make these kids feel like they have a safe space, that they have people surrounding them that love and care about them and always know that there’s a place for them to be themselves. To me, that’s what’s most important.”
Like ALSO Youth, Orlando’s Zebra Coalition was founded in 2010 to fill a need for services for young LGBTQ youth in need. The organization offers mental health support, a housing program with three different housing types and a drop-in center that provides basic needs of hygiene products, clothing, and food to the LGBTQ community ages 13 to 24.
They also offer training in the community and work with the schools to ensure they are providing services for LGBTQ+ youth. While special events are regularly hosted at the drop-in center, what Zebra Coalition and its kids look most forward to is the annual Pride Prom.
It began in 2019 in partnership with the Orlando Museum of Art. The organization donated the space for a prom for LGBTQ youth ages 14-20. 225 youth attended that evening.
“We had people wanting to get involved from throughout the community. We had so much support that we were fortunate enough to be able to offer 0some catering,” Zebra Coalition Executive Director Heather Wilkie recalls.
“It was such a fun night. The kids picked the playlist and we brought in some entertainment.
“We had drag performers, speakers from the City of Orlando came in and read a proclamation and the Gay Officer Action League group provided security,” she continues. “It was just so special to see these young people come to a dance where they felt completely accepted. They could bring whoever they wanted to and they could wear whatever they wanted in that formal prom theme – semi-formal to formal.”
Zebra Coalition assists a number of youth facing homelessness, bullying, isolation from their families and abuse and often works with the foster care system. Wilkie recalls one foster child with an affirming parent who attended the prom.
“She came up to us later and said it was one of the best experiences she had in her life,” Wilkie says. “I thought it was pretty heartwarming that her foster family would be bringing her to the prom. She stayed in touch with us and participates in our regular programming.”
For its dance, Zebra Coalition partnered with local makeup artists and held a donation drive for dresses and suits. They also had a glam day on the day of their prom, where the kids could get dressed while getting their makeup and hair done.
The prom is scheduled to return this year in June. Wilkie anticipates a high attendance due to a 2021 pandemic delay and the fact that invitations were sent out to Central Florida and all the GSAs they work with.
“Last time, we even had people coming in from South Florida,” Wilkie says. “They heard about it through their friends.
“The whole purpose of Zebra Coalition is that we provide safe, supportive and affirming places for LGBTQ kids,” she continues. “This is just part of our mission to provide events where they feel safe and loved, and we can help them have a little bit of fun too.
Wilkie adds that “I love the experience of the prom. Once you’re there, you get to see the fruits of your labor and these kids’ faces just beaming with joy and so much support from their parents. Everybody is coming together to advocate for these kids.”
Donations, sponsorships and volunteers are always sought by each organization to assist with operations.
ALSO Youth’s drop-in centers are located at 1470 Blvd. of the Arts in Sarasota and 501 5th St. E. in Bradenton. Call 941-951-2576 and visit ALSOYouth.org for details about their programming and services, including this year’s prom.
Zebra Coalition is located at 911 N. Mills Ave. in Orlando, 17 W. Monument St. in Kissimmee and can be reached at 407-228-1446. Learn more about them and their 2022 prom at ZebraYouth.org.