CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Community leaders, donors and supporters gathered together for dinner, music, dancing and fundraising on Friday, June 6, as Time Out Youth (TOY) celebrated a year of growth and lifted up the voices of young people in need.
NBC Charlotte anchor and reporter Ben Thompson emceed the gala, attending the event with his partner, Dr. Ryan Shelton.
“Over the last few years, Time Out Youth has become increasingly important to me, to my partner Ryan and to our friends,” Thompson said, noting the successes of TOY’s “on the ground” work for youth.
Thompson praised TOY and its staffers for the support they gave to students in Charlotte and across the region. Late last year, Thompson recounted, his station reported on efforts by students at rural West Lincoln High School to start a new LGBT student group.
Driving to the school to report on the controversy, Thompson said he expected to hear major pushback. He was surprised when many students supported the new gay-straight alliance.
“I left there feeling so much better,” Thompson said. “The jocks, the bookworms, the theatre kids. They all said, ‘We think it’s great we have a GSA here.’ And, this is in Lincoln County, y’all. Even the jocks were defending it. This is progress.”
Several youth who benefited from TOY’s host home and counseling programs spoke at the gala, including transgender young person Andraya Williams, who faced controversy over alleged discrimination at Central Piedmont Community College earlier this year. Now 22, Williams said TOY’s host home program helped her find stability, allowing her to maintain full-time employment, school enrollment and, now, her own home.
Northwest High School senior Contessa Cuellar, also transgender, shared a personal poem, drawing on the words of the late Maya Angelou.
“I was born a girl that some see as a boy,” Cuellar recited from memory. “Like you, I’ll rise. Your caged bird is now free. Rest in power.”
Brandon Perez, a sophomore at East Mecklenburg High School, shared how TOY helped him find support and encouraged him to become become a student leader on his campus, where students recently hosted GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard and senior Blake Brockington was elected Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ first transgender homecoming king.
“Over time, TOY has shown me what the word ‘understanding’ means. They gave me a safe space,” Perez told the audience, praising the “guidance and support of a great organization I now call my second family.”
Perez added, “They not only gave me a home, they gave me a safe home.”
The evening’s keynote was delivered by Joshua Burford, the assistant director of sexual and gender diversity at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte’s Multicultural Resource Center. Burford, an instructor and historian, has also been an outspoken activist in his home state of Alabama and here in Charlotte.
Burford encouraged TOY to not only support youth in need, but to lift them up, empower them and treat them as the future community leaders they will become.
“What I see are energetic, excited, capable young people who are the future of our community,” Burford said. “These are the next generation of leaders who will propel us forward and beyond mere equality to something that looks like liberation for everyone in our community.”
About 300 people attended the gala at Center Stage NoDa, just across the street from the new Time Out Youth Center. The organization moved to the 3,000-square-feet facility late last year, where the group has offered 1,300 hours of drop-in safe space for youth and myriad programs and activities. The new facility includes room for several offices for staff, interns and private counseling, a kitchen and laundry facility, a career center with several computers and other resources, a multi-purpose room and youth lounge complete with a TV and video games, snacks, couches and work space.
The dinner also saw the announcement of changeovers in TOY’s board leadership. Board Chair Jeremy Carter is stepping down.
“TOY means an enormous amount time me and it has given me so much joy to be a part of this organization,” Carter said, announcing his successor, current board Vice Chair Steven Wilson.
Wilson steps up to the lead the group as it is poised for future growth. TOY now employs three full-time staff, three part-time staff and five interns.
“I’m excited to take over this new role and see where we can take Time Out Youth in the next few years,” Wilson said.
TOY serves a seven-county region in the greater Charlotte metro area. Organization staffers, volunteers and partners offer a variety of services, including counseling, career advice, safe space and social drop-in hours, a host home program, leadership development, a speakers bureau, emergency assistance and more.
Over the past two years, the group has expanded its school outreach and student advocacy efforts — the group says it has held consultations with more than 200 school staff, teachers, administrators and counselors over the past year.
Organizers estimated the event raised about $70,000 for the organization, but final numbers have not yet been tallied.