Starting a New School Year with the Safe Schools Program

Safe Schools Program team in QueensKalima McKenzie-Simms (left) with a Safe Schools Program team at IS 141Q in Queens

My name is Kalima McKenzie-Simms, and I am the Safe Schools Program Coordinator at PFLAG NYC. I am passionate about teaching youth in New York City schools about the LGBTQ — that’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer — community as well as how to be a true, effective ally. Now that a new school year is beginning, I wanted to tell people about the Safe Schools Program from my perspective.

What Schools Get from the Safe Schools Program

Since the early 2000’s, the Safe Schools Program has been visiting schools, and making individual classroom presentations, sharing family stories of LGBT loved ones and personal experiences of coming out with students. Our wonderful volunteers are the heart of our program. Dozens of parents as well as LGBTQ people voluntarily speak to students about their experiences with coming out and coming to terms with either their own sexual orientation/gender identity, or learning to understand and accept that of their child.

The response that our program gets from school faculty and their students is so wonderful. Of course, it hasn’t always been that way. In the early days, many schools were in denial about having gay students, much less transgender ones. They said that they had no need of a program to help LGBT kids feel safe and welcome, because they had no LGBT students. Now it’s different in that most schools recognize that they have students who are grappling with sexual orientation or gender identity, but what’s not different is that those students still need a lot of support in order to succeed and thrive.

At one school we visited, the counselor who hosted us told us:

Your team brought our students such valuable insight and understanding of young person’s coming out — from the perspectives of both a parent and the gay person as well. Many students at this school don’t know how to find support and do not know how to begin such a ‘touchy’ conversation with someone. You laid the groundwork for them to feel comfortable. You were incredibly positive and strong role models for our students, not only ones struggling with coming out, but also with our straight students who can make such a difference with their classmates.”

What a Speaker Gets from the Safe Schools Program

I began my work with the Safe Schools Program as a volunteer speaker in 2011 and I quickly fell in love with the program. As a lesbian undergrad, I was filled with energy to be an activist and wanted to get involved. My first time speaking to a group of students, I was extremely nervous. I was basically coming out to a room full of 8th-grade strangers, sharing memories with them about my first real crush, and how frightened I was because it was on my female best friend. I told them about how I overcame my fear of being who I was and how much of a role my friend played in that journey by accepting me when I came out to her.

As I got into my story, my nervousness melted away. Not only were the students engaged by what I was telling them, but they had questions about how I felt when I was their age, and If I was still close to the people in the story. It felt amazing to know there could be one person in that small audience going through the exact same things I experienced when I was 13, and that by just telling them about a piece of my life and how I got through it, I was giving them hope.

That feeling I had on my first school visit, was unlike anything I had ever experienced. I was helping to create change and watching it happen before my eyes. There were students who had no idea what to expect, and a percentage of them were probably skeptical when they first learned the topic of conversation. It is something that they had likely never discussed openly, especially in school. But as I spoke, I saw them relax and absorb my message: that one person’s acceptance and understanding can save literally a life.

A Real Conversation about Acceptance… and Respect”

Not only are students engaged by our presentations, but the teachers who invite us into their classrooms are grateful that we open the door to a respectful dialogue about the LGBTQ community. A teacher from a high school in the Bronx wrote us a letter that said:

Your insightful, heartfelt personal stories combined with facts that hit home with our young people opened up a much needed dialogue within our school about the LGBTQ community. Those who were here for your visit last year felt inspired to see you here again and those new to our school found an opportunity to start a real conversation about acceptance, sexuality, and respect. This is in large part due to you and your team. Thank you thank you thank you. You are truly part of our community now.”

The Safe Schools Program is growing and reaching more students every year. We are always looking for more volunteer speakers. Everyone has a story to share. What about you?