SAN ANTONIO – As the new school year begins, Fiesta Youth is working to expand its support program and make its activities more accessible to middle school and high school students who identify as LGBTQIA.
This fall, the nonprofit will begin a partnership with the YMCA of Greater San Antonio and expand its program with San Antonio public libraries to offer more locations throughout the city for its weekly support groups.
"We realized that the biggest challenge for teens -- LGBT teens -- is transportation. San Antonio is such a huge city. We wanted to make sure that we were reaching all parts of the city," said Darrell Garcia Parsons, Fiesta Youth board president.
Every Tuesday, Fiesta Youth holds meetings for children ages 12 to 18 at 6:30 p.m. at University Presbyterian Church near Trinity University at 300 Bushnell.
"The meetings start off with the kids. They show up. We let them hang out for about 15 minutes, get to catch up on their week," Garcia Parsons said. "They introduce themselves by their preferred pronouns, their preferred names. Then we get into an ice breaker, which is different every week."
"It's actually made me be able to make friends easier, because I used to just stand off in a corner and just huddle and pretend I wasn't there. Now I'm at the point where I can walk up to people and say, 'Hi, I'm Mara. I'm really gay,'" said Mara Owens, a participant of the program.
Youth meetings often feature guest speakers and visitors from the LGBTQIA community, who are booked by youth facilitator Erica Alcocer.
"When I bring in community members who are trans or identify as LGBTQ and they talk about their success in their business ventures or in their art or their music, (the kids are) able to see themselves in that person thriving and growing and having a place in San Antonio and beyond," Alcocer said.
Fiesta Youth also offers monthly meetings for parents.
"On the second Tuesday of the month, we do a parent night, which is usually facilitated by a licensed clinical social worker," Garcia Parsons said. "We provide parent support, like how can they help their child, what can they do to make their kid's life a little easier because they're already going to school. They're already facing enough obstacles as it is. The one safe place they need besides this place, besides Fiesta Youth, is their own home."
Volunteers with the group said that, despite a more concerted effort by schools to deter bullying, children are still taunted by their classmates, and children who identify as LGBTQIA are often targets for bullying.
Alcocer said Fiesta Youth provides a safe space for those kids to speak up and express themselves -- free from judgment.
"It's a beautiful thing to kind of see them be vulnerable," Alcocer said. "It's extremely important, especially in these times when they're battling harassment, bullying, their identity's not being accepted."
"It's changing lives in a way that's building these teens' self-esteem up. It's building up their confidence, and it's giving them something that they never had before," Garcia Parsons said.
Fiesta Youth held its first meeting on Sept. 10, 2013. Garcia Parsons said 10 teens walked through the door.
Since then, the group has provided support for more than 500 children -- both emotionally and financially.
"We've given out $10,000 in college scholarships," Garcia Parsons said. "All of our funds are raised at the local level."
The program hosts two major fundraising events annually -- the Halloween Hocus Pocus party and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which is now an official Fiesta event. Fiesta Youth also sponsors an LGBTQ prom the first Saturday in May.
"It's completely awesome. It's the only dance I've ever felt comfortable going to and not want to hide in the corner for four hours," Owens said.
The group participates in city and nationwide LGBTQIA events, such as Pride, Dreamweek, the Big Give and National Coming Out Day. For information about upcoming events and how to become a sponsor, visit Fiesta Youth's website.