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Interview with Dorothy Awards Honoree True Colors (Executive Director Robin McHaelen)

True Colors produces the largest LGBT youth conference of its kind in the world, which takes place at UConn in Storrs each March. The annual True Colors conference sees youth attending from across the country and around the world, thousands each year in all, with a large volunteer contingency helping to make the event a success. As a state-based organization, they also have a year-round presence mentoring youth, training leaders and running workshops, with a focus on assisting LGBT youth.

Former Center co-president Thomas Donato interviewed True Colors Executive Director (and Dorothy Awards honoree herself) Robin McHaelen for this week’s nominee introduction:

  1. Tell us about the True Colors organization.
    True Colors started as a field work project when I was getting my master’s in social work back in 1993. It was supposed to be a one time conference, but both the youth who helped organize it and I were so transformed by the experience that we decided to keep on going. Now, we have five full time employees, five interns, 125 volunteers running seven programs across the state of Connecticut. Programs include LGBTQ mentoring, school support and youth leadership, foster parent recruitment, professional training, policy and programming work with state agencies and the conference. Now going into its 22nd year, the conference is the largest LGBTQ and allies youth conference in the country.
  2. What is True Colors proudest achievement or impact?
    Hard to say. We have found homes for youth who were homeless; provided support when a kid thought he/she was alone; created community for kids who thought they had none. One of the things I love best about the work is watching youth grow up and give back. I look around and see so many young leaders who got their start with us. 
  3. What has contributed to the organization’s longevity and success?
    No question, it is the people. From our board of directors, to our staff, to our volunteers and donors, so many people pour their energies and talents into the organization that we can’t help but make a difference. 
  4. What is the biggest challenge facing the Connecticut LGBT community today?
    As a youth serving agency, we would say issues associated with youth. Youth are coming out earlier and earlier. For some, it is no big deal. Their families, friends and schools are fine with it. For other kids, their whole world implodes. We need many more services and ways to support diverse families as their kids come out. We need to face the disproportionate impact of racism on LGBT youth of color and especially, we need to do a significantly better job as a society of including and supporting trans and gender non-conforming children, youth and adults.
  5. Who or what inspires the leadership of True Colors?
    Without a doubt, it is our people. From our board, to our staff, to our mentors and volunteers and our donors, people pour their passion, expertise, resources and desire to make a difference into the work. We couldn’t do what we do without them and we know it.
  6. What is the origin of the organization’s name?
    It was a brainstorming session with the leadership team that began the incorporation process back in 1997. We wanted a name that reflected our values (respect, inclusion, safety and empowerment) and that sent the message that everyone was welcome here. We wanted people to know that they could bring their whole selves to our organization and that they would be valued and affirmed — that they could bring and show their true colors. We used sexual and gender minority youth (rather than LGBT) to acknowledge that names and labels change and we wanted to include everyone.
  7. Describe some of the programs and services that True Colors offers.
    Our programs and services include: a One-on-One Mentoring Program, which brings the benefits of mentoring directly to more than 100 youth across the state; an Annual Conference, our oldest and most well-known program; Youth Leadership Development, which has had a hand directly or indirectly in the development of most of the Gay/Straight Alliances in the state; a Safe Harbors Task Force, focused on the needs of LGBT youth in out-of-home care; Cultural Competency Training; and a Spiritual Institute, which helps to create safe and affirming spaces in which LGBT youth can do their spiritual work.
  8. Give us some history about the annual conference.
    The annual conference began as a field work project in 1994 and is now the largest and most comprehensive LGBT youth issues conference in the nation. Nearly 3,000 youth, educators, social workers, clinicians, family members and clergy participate in more than 250 workshops, films, activities, and events over the course of the two or three-day event. School groups participate from more than half of the communities in Connecticut, from across the Northeast and nationally.
  9. Tell us why people should support True Colors.
    Because with their support, we make a difference for kids everyday. There are many ways that individuals can become a part of what we do – they can volunteer, mentor, donate.
  10. How can people get involved in True Colors, and what is the best way to support the organization?
    The best way is to contact our volunteer coordinator, Amber, at (860) 232.0050 or by email at amber@ourtruecolors.org. or they can fill out a volunteer application at www.ourtruecolors.org.
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