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Carolyn Wahlskog on upcoming award, career, mobilization
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times

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Carolyn Wahlskog, the senior program manager of 360 Youth Services, will receive the Emerging Leader Award from the Illinois chapter of The National Association of Social Workers on Wed., Oct. 24, at the Hilton Lisle.

According to the NASW Illinois Chapter website, this award is given to early career social workers to honor their "exemplary leadership, expertise and dedication to the profession."

"I feel very honored to receive this award and grateful for the opportunity to highlight organizations who are working to create safe and brave spaces for LGBTQ youth, their families and communities," said Wahlskog. "I can only do what I do because of the support of my mentors, community partners and the incredible young people that I have the privilege of working alongside."

Wahlskog's focus at 360 Youth Services, where she has worked since 2013, is with the LGBTQ Transitional Housing Program ( THPQ ) for youth experiencing homelessness in Naperville. THPQ serve eight young people at a time for up to 18 months as they transition towards independence.

"We built the THPQ from the ground up with support from PFLAG, Sharing Connections and community members such as the Birthday Cake Brigade," said Wahlskog. "Since then we have served 44 young people between the ages of 18-21 with housing, job coaching, educational supports, life skills among other supports."

Youth Outlook Executive Director Nancy Mullen, who nominated Wahlskog for the award, said, "Carolyn has a unique scope and breadth of knowledge about working with LGBTQ young people, from coming out issues to housing issues to advocacy in the legal system. In her time with Youth Outlook, Carolyn made lots of references to unicorns. There are unicorns in the art work at her former drop-in center, on doodles that were sketched during meetings and in balloon forms at picnics, all without ( I believe ) ever realizing that she is the unicorn."

Evolution Counseling Gender Therapist Sandra Conti and Linden Oaks Hospital Inpatient Adolescent Unit Clinical Leader Fran Zucco wrote nomination letters for Wahlskog.

"Carolyn is the best role model for clinicians who strive to provide safe and affirming care to individuals," said Zucco. "She makes everyone she encounters feel valued and important."

"I have a transgender child and at first I was hesitant to work with LGBTQ people because I did not know what is was to be an ally," said Conti. "Carolyn showed me how through her openness and acceptance whenever we were in the same room that I was an ally. She encouraged me to keep showing up in LGBTQ spaces and taught me how to use my lived experiences as a strength. I am grateful for everything she has done for me and my family."

"Carolyn has offered hope and unconditional support to the 1000s of young people she has worked with over the years," said 360 Youth Services Executive Director Deb Robertson. "She is an inspiration to me. I have had the privilege of watching her grow and develop as a social worker and fight for the injustices experienced by our youth of today. She is a rare find and I am thankful every day I have the opportunity to have her on our team."

"Carolyn is a force," said 360 Youth Services Clinical Director Margot Smith. "I tell everyone that when they write the history books about the Illinois LGBTQ+ advocacy movement there will be chapters about Carolyn. This is a much earned award for her and yet I know she will downplay the significance. Like a true helping professional, Carolyn lives and breathes the work, not for acclaim, but for the lives she impacts each and every day. It is an honor to work alongside Carolyn as she demonstrates our mission and values in all of the work she does."

Lurie Children's Hospital Adolescent Medicine Program Manager Jennifer Leninger said, "Carolyn provides an incredible amount of love and support to youth across the region and state. She brings joy and compassion to her direct work with clients and advocacy in the community. She is truly one of the kindest and hardest working people that I have ever had the privilege of collaborating with. I cannot think of anyone more deserving of this award."

Until this past July, Wahlskog was also at Youth Outlook where she was the Community Education + Gender Programming Manager. Carolyn helped relaunch Youth Outlook's Transcend program during her intern year following her 2011 graduation from the University of Indiana, Bloomington where she received her BA in speech and hearing science.

Wahlskog's interest in social work began after her junior year in college because speech therapy did not feel like the right fit for her.

"I took that summer to explore potential careers," said Wahlskog. "Social work felt like the best fit because there are endless options in the field. I also think social work most closely aligned with my values of looking at the whole person versus many deficit-based helping professions that just look at what was wrong with a person."

She received her master's degree from the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2013.

Wahlskog explained that most everything good in her life is due to her connections with Youth Outlook.

"I developed my social work skills there, made queer family and friends, including my work wife Lorrie Brenneman and became more comfortable in my skin," said Wahlskog.

Since launching the monthly Transcend group in October 2011, the drop-in center has expanded to meet every Wednesday night and now serves youth ages 12-20 years old and their parents. Wahlskog moved on from Youth Outlook so she could focus on her work with 360 Youth Services. The group is now run by former youth leader turned volunteer and now staff, Danny Julius.

"My goal now as a social worker is to be the possibility model that I needed when I was growing up," said Wahlskog. "I never saw what a positive life could look like as a queer person. I love working in the community where I was raised and seeing the way things have changed. I did a training for the teachers at a District 203 middle school, the district that I attended. I almost cried when I walked in and saw a rainbow sticker in the front office. Change is happening, even in the suburbs."

Wahlskog came onboard the Transfomative Justice Law Project's ( TJLP ) Name Change Mobilization initiative ( nicknamed the Mobes ) in 2014. She currently co-coordinates the Mobes with Avi Rudnick. They recently celebrated the initiative surpassing 1,000 name changes.

"I got involved with TJLP after trying to navigate the name change process with a THPQ client and interacting with a very transphobic clerk at the DuPage County Courthouse," said Wahlskog. "I knew Owen Daniel-McCarter from our work together on the Gender Expansive Youth Network so I called him for support. He invited me to the Mobes and I was hooked. Helping people navigate the name change process is a very tangible way to make an impact."

Wahlskog is also co-chair of the DuPage Community Network: Professionals Serving LGBTQ+ Youth, on the DCFS LGBTQ Roundtable, and served as a working group member for Centerlink's upcoming Q Chat Space.

She was also honored by this publication's 30 Under 30 last year. She said it is more exciting to see some of the young people she has worked with also receive the award.

When Wahlskog is not working, she likes to listen to podcasts, walk her poodle, Ole and is currently challenging herself to read 100 books this year. She also enjoys organizing Queer Family Dinners, hanging with her niblings, going pontooning and reminding people to "protect your heart, protect your body."

See for more on the Mobes.

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