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Aqua Girl offers parties, supports future LBT leaders
by Charlsie Dewey

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Although sitting poolside might seem like a far-off dream in the middle of January, the organizers of annual women's weekend Aqua Girl want the ladies of Chicago to start fantasizing about summer early.

Tickets for the popular weekend, being held May 15-19, are on sale now, with a discounted hotel price guaranteed through the month of January only. This year's host hotel is South Beach's The National, which promises a sexy atmosphere that will serve as a backdrop for a weekend of fun.

Like most other women's weekends across the country, Aqua Girl offers pool parties, clubbing, live music performances, a VIP cocktail party and even a few low-key events, but according to Robin Schwartz, executive director of the Aqua Foundation for Women, the biggest difference from those other parties is that 100 percent of the proceeds go to charity.

"It's the largest charity women's event in the country," said Schwartz. "This is a party that you can come and have an amazing time and also know that your money is going to something that matters."

Aqua Girl is the largest fundraising event for the Aqua Foundation for Women, an organization that seeks to create future LBT leaders in South Florida by providing grants, scholarships and mentoring.

"The reason it was founded was that a group of LBT women realized that we needed an organization that was run by women and focused on the needs of women," Schwartz explained. "There were a lot of great organizations in town and they do good work, but because they were mostly run by guys and funded by guys, we thought the women weren't getting their just do."

The organization began in 2004 with a scholarship program, and has grown to include the grants program and mentorship program. Funding amounts for all of its programs have also grown, in part thanks to the continued growth of Aqua Girl.

Last year the women's weekend sold 9,000 tickets and brought in women from all over the globe. That's quite an increase from the event's first year, which was attended by approximately 800 women, largely local.

"The growth is pretty exciting," Schwartz said.

In 2012, the Aqua Foundation was able to award 15 scholarships in amounts ranging from $2,500 to 5,000, and it awarded $50,000 in grants. During the past seven years it has awarded a total of more than $400,000.

"We've really expanded the type of work that we do in an effort to impact all the different types of women who exist here in South Florida as well as to broaden our support," Schwartz said.

This year, the foundation plans to introduce a leadership course. It will focus on helping women learn leadership skills that they can bring to their work in the community.

Leadership is the real goal of the foundation. All scholarship recipients also receive a mentor, which Schwartz said is a very important aspect of the program. She pointed out that for some of the women this is the first time they've met a successful LBT person, and they are able to discuss their experiences with someone who may have a better understanding because she has also faced the same challenges.

Through the grants program, the foundation has been able to fund all types of significant projects supporting women's wellness, youth empowerment, therapeutic counseling, cultural enrichment, equality and more. One of its most recent accomplishments was funding the creation of the LBT Women's Health Directory, which it expects will have a significant impact on LBT women's health, possibly even saving some women's lives.

Now the LBT women of South Florida have a place they can go to find a doctor with whom they can be completely open, honest and comfortable with, said Schwartz.

For 2013, Aqua Foundation has identified three main funding priorities, and the one that Schwartz is most excited about is its plan to begin supporting programs to help homeless LGBT youth.

Schwartz hopes the effort will help induce other organizations to join this effort.

Another 2013 funding priority is to create a conference for LBT young women on cultivating leadership, personal financial planning, health and business skills. The organization will also continue to support LBT women's physical, mental, and emotional health.

When asked what other organizations might learn from the Aqua Foundation, Schwartz said that one of the most important aspects of the Aqua Foundation is really that is it operated by women and focused on women.

"Not that we don't love the guys and don't want to be part of those other organizations, but there's not enough women who are involved in the greater community across the United States, from what I know, and I think that by establishing organizations that are by and for women you encourage more women to get involved. That's the first step," she said.

Schwartz encourages women from across the country to book their tickets for Aqua Girl and help develop future LBT leaders. She hopes that the event will sell 10,000 tickets this year.

In addition, Schwartz pointed out, "There's not a lot of places in the United States where you can go and for several days have a variety of events where you can be totally yourself and comfortable and have this awesome time and meet great people from all over the place."

Aqua Girl has not finalized its list of performers yet, but Schwartz expects that to happen sometime in late February or early March. She suggested the best way to stay abreast of event details is through Facebook. For questions, call 305-576-2782 or visit .

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