ORLANDO – There was an actual zebra on the grounds of the building at 911 N. Mills Ave., which was led into a pen and seemed quite happy to be eating some hay. The zebra also displayed no signs of displeasure at the crowd of people eager to get photos taken with it.
“Hopefully, you got to see Willie, our seven-year-old Zebra,” said Scott Bowman, vice president of Sara Brady Public Relations Inc. of Winter Park. “He is our superstar today. He’s been in movies and done some Juicy Fruit commercials, so he’s probably better known than any of us.”
Willie’s presence at the groundbreaking ceremony was mostly symbolic, though, since the building had nothing whatsoever to do with exotic animals. Willie’s only real connection was to the name of the building – The Zebra Coalition, a property with a very specific goal: to provide a center for resources and assistance for all young people, but in particular for those teens who are lesbian and gay.
“Today, as we get ready to open our doors, we are better positioned to make sure our youth have a place to come to, that’s a safe haven for us,” said Dexter Foxworth, the director of The Zebra Coalition.
Orlando City Commissioner Patti Sheehan, who is lesbian, said it was a remarkable achievement to see the city celebrating the opening of a place to help lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered youth – a clear sign, she added, of just how much this city had changed.
“It humbles me to see that so many people have come together for this place,” Sheehan said. “This would never have happened 10 or 15 years ago, and I am so proud to be here today.”
In fact, Sheehan even read a proclamation from the city, declaring Dec. 5 as Zebra Coalition Day in Orlando. Mayor Buddy Dyer also issued a statement, noting “The Zebra Coalition is the only organization in Central Florida that provides a full continuum of services to the LGBTQ youth community.”
The Zebra Coalition was established over a five year period, in response to the growing number of gay teens across Central Florida who were experiencing homelessness, bullying, physical and sexual abuse, rejection from their families, and other challenges that left them in need of help, Foxworth said.
“We serve all youth who come to our door – specifically the LGBTQ population, but we do work with all youth even if they’re straight,” he said.
The new Zebra Coalition House will provide office space for the coalition’s staff, and provide case management and counseling; medical services; a food, hygiene and clothing bank; laundry and shower facilities; education and career support; a resource library; and a computer center. There will also be peer support and discussion groups that meet there, art and music therapy, and educational and therapeutic workshops.
“It’s a place to come as a safe haven and for support,” Foxworth said. “We’re here to provide for any needs they may have.”
Bowman, whose firm handles media relations for the coalition, also announced that The Bryce L. West Foundation — a private entity supporting the arts, education and organizations that provide services to individuals in need — had pledged $500,000 over the next eight years to the Zebra Foundation and its work and mission.
“We received a very generous donation of $500,000 over five years that will go to the renovation of the house and then its daily operations,” Bowman said. “Christmas came early for us.”
West issued a statement noting that “By making this gift, we can ensure that future donations, gifts, grants and other financial assistance to the Zebra Foundation for Youth will go directly to client services.”
The Zebra Coalition is a network of 19 Central Florida social service providers, government agencies, schools, colleges and universities that provide services to at-risk gay teens. The average cost to manage one Zebra Coalition client case for a month is $500.
“There’s a federal grant that helps fund part of this, and the employee who is the director here,” said Todd Dixon, director of the Center for Drug-Free Living Inc. of Orlando, one of the partners in this coalition.
Earlier this year, the coalition selected the vacant building at the corner of Mills and E. Marks St. as the coalition’s main office, Dixon said.
“They purchased this house in the beginning of the summer,” he said. “It had been a rental place.”
“The reason we chose this location is because of its visibility,” Foxworth said. “It’s very easy to get to. People can come here to meet their case managers and our staff.”
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