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Schools alliance holds annual brunch, honors individuals
By Melissa Wasserman

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The Illinois Safe Schools Alliance (the Alliance) hosted its annual fundraiser The Alliance Brunch at the Chicago Cultural Center on Sept. 30.

In the spacious Sidney R. Yates Gallery, adults and youth ate, drank and celebrated the organization and its mission "to promote safety, support and healthy development for LGBTQ youth in Illinois schools and communities." Guests also had the opportunity to donate money as well as participate in a silent auction for various prizes.

This year's brunch honored Khadine Bennett with the Advocate of the Year Award for her work on House Bill 5290—legislation aimed at improving bullying prevention in Illinois schools—while serving as Legislative Counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois; high school students Abe Akande and Grace Gonia with the Activists of the Year Award; and Jamie Nabozny with the Trailblazer Award for standing up to school administrators after they repeatedly refused to intervene as classmates bullied him. With the help of Lambda Legal and Skadden Arps, he went on to win the federal case Nabozny v. Podlesny.

"I'm just really excited to be honored by a group that's doing such great work to make the Illinois schools safe places for all kids," said Nabozny. "I think the big thing that's changed, especially in the last couple of years, is a greater awareness of both bullying and its effects on kids. I think with that there are slow changes, but we've got a long ways to go because there are still kids taking their own lives because of what's happening to them in our schools.

Event Chair Rocco Claps also helped organize last year's brunch. (He chaired this year, along with Mary Morten.) He said the event grew significantly as people continue to be more engaged and interested while the group matures.

"We have a lot of people involved from the educational community, from the LGBTQ community, from all over the city and suburbs and it gives a real a face it gives real work to people that bullying is a really bad thing and we need to fight it," said Claps. "This is a way that really puts the rubber to the road."

Now a senior in high school, Gonia was picked on in middle school and as a result she joined her school's gay-straight alliance her freshman year. Since then, she has supported the cause and has a dream to one day be a high school counselor in order to help youth who feel unsafe in school.

"That's mainly what's motivated me to do this work is I want to make sure all youth can feel safe in their schools and not have to skip school just because someone is bullying them," she said. "I feel really almost gratified. The work I'm doing is actually making a difference and other people can see I'm really doing work that's helping people. It just felt like so good I was being recognized for the work I'm doing."

Alliance announces expansion

At the brunch, the alliance also announced that it is opening an office in Champaign, Ill.

The Champaign office will host two staff positions and will be located within Unit 4 district offices. An Illinois Department of Human Services grant, totaling $128,000 per year, aims to help the alliance increase the capacity of school personnel and social-service providers throughout the state to prevent substance use and abuse in LGBTQ youth.

In addition, the Chicago-based staff has expanded to five with the recent addition of Lawrence Carter as the gay-straight alliance network coordinator.

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