Best summer internship ever: I build kids' self-esteem, tear down prejudice

This article originally appeared in Orlando Sentinel.

I am a gay Hispanic male who isn't even old enough to go to clubs yet, and I was not close to any of the Pulse victims. But still I struggle with their deaths.

As one of five Bank of America Student Leaders in Central Florida, I am experiencing a summer of growth, learning, travel, and work. Those opportunities are still there, but they've taken on a different meaning as I view them through a screen of post-Pulse sadness and reflection.

Now, instead of focusing on what I can learn this summer to get ahead in college this fall, my thoughts center on what steps I can take to prevent another Pulse shooting from occurring.

Fear about what some people may consider to be strange or different closes us off from one another. At Colonial High School, I started the Gay Straight Alliance, an organization where students could get to know one another as friends and as classmates — not as members of various cliques.

The Alliance fostered understanding of Colonial's LGBT students in order to fight prejudice against those students for who they were. As a result, our high school was a happier place for LGBT and straight students. Through discussion, we found that our similarities were much greater than our differences.

Because of the results I saw from the Alliance at Colonial, I look forward to working with other Gay Straight Alliance chapters through the Zebra Coalition, an organization that assists LGBT youth facing homelessness, bullying, drug abuse and isolation from their families. So many of the Pulse survivors said that clubs are a place where they could just be themselves. Wouldn't it be great if they could be themselves wherever they are? That's what I hope to accomplish through service with the Zebra Coalition.

This summer through my Student Leader internship with Boys & Girls Clubs, I'm finding more opportunity for understanding and breaking through barriers. I admit that I had preconceived ideas about the kids I would be working with at a Boys & Girls Clubs center. A week on the job smashed those preconceptions.

Maybe I was more open to seeing these children for who they are because of the Pulse shooting's impact on me. These youngsters are smart, funny and talented. Like the rest of us, they just want to be validated and respected by those they look up to. My hope for this summer is that I'm able to help them gain confidence and self-esteem.

This week I'm attending a leadership summit in Washington, D.C., with hundreds of Student Leaders from throughout the nation. I hope to learn how these high-school juniors and seniors are strengthening their communities through service, and how we can use those lessons to improve understanding among different population groups in our community.

In the month since Pulse, I've worked through fear, anger and sadness. I'm still grappling with it, but I've also come away with something else: commitment. I commit that, each day I will ask how I can help someone else, be kind to someone else, and suspend my prejudices to understand someone else.

For whatever reason, the Pulse shooter aimed his hate at people just like me: Hispanics in the LGBT community. Instead of hate and fear, I choose to react with love and compassion.

I hope others will join me by showing kindness, strengthening connections, and fighting discrimination by accepting people for who they are.

Neil Rios Laverde, 18, a 2016 Colonial High School graduate, is one of five Central Florida teens chosen to be a Bank of America Student Leader. He is in Washington, D.C., this week for the Bank of America Student Leaders Summit. He plans to attend Valencia College to study business administration.


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