By Leah Chiappino
Horizons Counseling and Education Center, a nonprofit organization run through the Town of Smithtown that provides drug- and alcohol-related counseling and prevention services, is launching a new workshop series for LGBTQ+ youth. The curriculum comes from the nationwide Proud and Empowered program, which according to its website is an “intervention designed to help empower LGBTQ+ youth and improve school climate.”
Kelly DeVito, the Youth Services coordinator at Horizons, said the idea was born from a focus group through Smithtown’s Youth and Community Alliance in March 2022, with participants from Horizons along with the Smithtown Youth Bureau. The consensus from the youth group was that the town was lacking a space for the LGBTQ+ community to gather for discussions.
The NYS Office of Addiction Services and Supports, one of Horizons funding agencies, provided the name of Proud and Empowered on a list of programs. DeVito saw it as a perfect fit to meet the needs of the local LGBTQ+ youth in the surrounding community.
“I had emailed the developers of Proud and Empowered, and they had sent it over to us and showed us how to work it and all that kind of stuff,” she said. “And so now we’re going to try and emulate it.”
The program is geared toward middle school and high school students. It consists primarily of open discussion, paired with small group activities and education, to help youth learn different coping skills and how to deal with social issues that may surround them.
One of the goals of the program is to teach youth how to cope with stressors unique to the LGBTQ+ community, such as social marginalization, family rejection, internalized homonegativity, identity management, homonegative climates, intersectionality, negative disclosure experiences, negative expectancies and homonegative communication. These stressors, which can occur at school, home or within the youth’s community, are shown to increase the risk of behavioral health issues such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide and substance abuse. The program aims to teach coping skills and avoidance strategies to help reduce these risks, the website said.
“We just want it to be something that they can come to and feel safe, not stressed, and learn about these topics,” DeVito said. “There is open discussion, and then there’s some activity as well just to keep them moving along and there’s video clips and all that kind of stuff, but generally it’s for us, for them just to be able to talk to us.”
Some of the topics discussed are friendships, family, stress, health, spirituality, coping skills and social justice. Coming out, decision making and resilience are also mentioned.
“It’s all related to teens in general because these are all topics that any teen should have stronger skills on,” DeVito said. “But then it also focuses on their community as well.”
The program is designed to be held for 10 weeks and in approximately 45-minute sessions, but Horizons has chosen to conduct two sessions in one day, shortening the program to five weeks for an hour and a half, as it can be difficult for students to get transportation during the summer.
The Proud and Empowered curriculum was developed by “scholars, advocates, practitioners, methodologists and lifelong learners” at universities throughout the country, who are “dedicated to performing high quality research” relating to “behavioral health outcomes for LGBTQ+ youth.” The program also aims to gain an understanding of the stress LGBTQ+ youth face in schools and how to adequately address it from a research standpoint.
The program hasn’t had any teen sign-ups as at press time but Horizons would push the start date forward a week from July 17. Despite the negative turnout to date, DeVito still believes there is space and a need for the program in the community.
“Unfortunately we did not get any registrants,” she said. “We will extend the program though if we have some interested participants.”
The students at the focus group “said they did feel it was something that was lacking in this area, and that’s why we wanted to run it because we want to give them another alternative for people to go to,” DeVito said. “And this particular program has been shown to help young people with various different mental health struggles they may be having if they’re feeling depressed or anything like that. This program has been shown to help them.”
The sessions are free of charge and open to students 13 to 17. Up to 15 students can participate. To register, contact the center at 161 E. Main St., Smithtown, or call 631-360-7578.