Having the freedom to love

All the heart shaped chocolates in the stores these days reminded me of this e-interview that I did this past summer! I know that part of the process of growing up is figuring out who you are, and I know that the usual teen drama is amplified when teens are struggling with their sexual orientation or gender identity, because there are so many people who haven’t ever thought about something other than their own experiences. I had the great fortune of connecting with the folks at Free2Luv, an award-winning nonprofit dedicated to rockin’ individuality, celebrating equality, spreading kindness & standing up to bullying through arts & entertainment, and they were gracious enough to have both Tonya (President and Co-Founder of Free2Luv) AND a youth volunteer answer my questions!

How did Free2Luv begin?

1 out of every 3 children experience some form of bullying and 9 out of 10 LGBT students experience harassment at school and online.  Further, 20% of high school students say they have seriously considered suicide.  As parents, Tonya and Kym Sandis believed this epidemic needed to stop and Free2Luv was born. “We know the scarring and lasting impact bullying has on our youth, robbing them of their innocence and emotionally stripping them of their well-being.  Coming from the entertainment industry, we understand the power the arts have to heal, uplift and empower and we utilize this platform to spread our mission of celebrating individuality, rockin’ kindness and standing up to bullying,” says Tonya, President and Co-Founder of Free2Luv.

How can shy teens show their peers that they can be free to love anyone they choose?

We like this question as it opens up the reason why we named our nonprofit Free2Luv.  We believe first and foremost, self-love is key, whether you are a teen, child or adult.  When you are confident in who you are and treat others with love and respect, you show everyone around you unconditional love.

“If a shy teen wants to advocate everyone’s freedom to love, I recommend they tap into their passion and share from their place of comfort.  This can be done through art, music, dance, sports, you name it.  We have had youth advocates share poems, art, stories, even their passion for race car driving and they have used it as a platform to spread LUV, kindness and compassion with others,” says Tonya.

“There are many LGBTQ+ groups, either at school or online, that are a great way to express yourself.  They are both a safe space and a place where you can share and be yourself. You can also talk about and share things that you love that are related to your identity; i.e. LGBTQ+ books, music, TV shows etc.,” says Free2Luv LGBT Teen Ambassador.

What can teens do if they are in a situation where it is not safe for them to share the message that love is love?

Safety is of the utmost importance.  If you feel that an environment is unsafe to share your message that love is love, find a supportive community and/or environment.  It could be a gay/straight alliance at school, an online organization such as ours or an informal community gathering.

“Find a safe space online.  There are so many people going through the same thing that want to share and speak out, but are not safe to do so in their home or where they live.  Finding a place online where you can be yourself and talk to others who are going through the same thing can help so much,” says LGBT Teen Ambassador.

What is the best part of being a teen in today’s society?

“As the Co-Founder of Free2Luv, I work with teens and youth daily and I’m so moved and impressed by how socially aware and conscious they are.  If we could focus on that every day instead of all the news we hear through the media and online, there are real, young inspirational people that are true game changers in the world and we are proud to hold hands with them.  There are so many wonderful vehicles today that offer youth a way to express their voice that weren’t available even 10 years ago, so it’s a really exciting time to be a teen.   And with that, also comes a big responsibility because as easy as it is to spread kindness, new technology can also be used in destructive ways to spread hate.  The age-old adage, treat others as you want to be treated, still applies.   We need to model kindness and compassion to create a kinder world for all,” says Tonya.

“Technology is a big part of why being a teenager today is amazing.  The ability to learn anything and learn quickly, the ability to talk to anyone anywhere in the world, the ability to hold the world in your pocket, the ability to be a part of a movement that is happening on the other side of the world and to speak out and stand up is amazing.

I think another, if not the most amazing part of being a teen today is that we are changing the world for the better every day.  We are passionate and we care about the world we live in.  We are using our voices and standing up for what is right.  It’s so important and wonderful,” says LGBT Teen Ambassador.

 What evidence of their work would the Free2luv team love to see in ten year’s time?

We would love to see thousands of advocates holding hands with us in communities around the world sharing our message of love, unity and the importance of kindness and compassion.  We are passionate about growing our empowerment events and workshops and reaching more and more communities throughout the U.S.  We are especially passionate about sharing our programs with underserved youth who may not normally have access to the type of programming we offer.  We know the power of one person to stand up and make a difference and for us, success is one more child becoming self-aware, standing up, speaking out and letting their voice be heard.  Will you join us?

check out www.free2luv.org for more details!

 

ConnecTeen 24 hour support for TEENS in Calgary, Alberta

My mission is tomainconnecteencallout connect teens and those who care about them with the resources they need to THRIVE! I recently connected with an amazing, FREE resource here in my home town of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. ConnecTeen offers FREE, confidential 24 hour support through online chat, phone, text, and e-mail to Calgary and the surrounding area. Teens offer peer support between 5pm – 10pm on weekdays and from 12 – 10pm on Saturday and Sunday. Outside of those hours, adult volunteers respond to calls so there is always someone to talk to, 24 hours every day. CLICK HERE to access ConnecTeen

I asked some of the teen volunteers at ConnecTeen to answer some of my questions about this AMAZING resource. Here’s what you’ll learn in this article:

  • Why it’s ok to call ConnecTeen even when we think “It’s not that bad”
  • Why teen-to-teen support is so important
  • What to expect when you call ConnecTeen
  • What is AWESOME about being a teen today

Deanne : What would you like to tell a teen who hesitates calling ConnecTeen because they think “it’s not that bad”

When we talk to teens about our service, we like to emphasize that it’s better to talk about something that’s “not that bad” than to wait or hold it in until it becomes “that bad”. Stress, anger or worry can become a huge burden if we don’t try to cope with it right away. We also encourage youth to open up about their problems no matter how big or small it may be. We will never minimize how someone is feeling because all problems are worth talking about. Our volunteers are eager to help and support everyone that contacts us, no matter the size of their problem. At ConnecTeen, it’s about supporting someone who may feel alone in their problem or if they need to just vent.

Volunteer: Venting whatever you might at feel, whether it is “not that bad” or not, does help! Having someone else to listen to you, anonymously through a chat or not, lets you to sort out how you really feel about what you are going through, and helps you to not only feel better, but organize your thoughts as well.

Volunteer: No problem is ever too small to call. We are here to listen, no matter what the problem is. Sometimes, it’s good to have a 3rd person assess the situation since one cannot see the forest when he/she is inside it. Even if you are feeling down, don’t hesitate to call us.

Deanne : Why do you have teens answering the ConnecTeen line?

CT: ConnecTeen, originally named “Teen Line” was initiated as a peer support line; the first of its kind in Canada in 1983. We believe that no one understands teens better than their peers. As adults, we tend to forget what it’s like to have such little control over your life when you’re a teenager. We also tend to forget how many important milestones and “firsts” occur during this time too. Our youth volunteers have either lived through similar experiences or can truly empathize with our service users because of their age. We also find that teens are more likely to open to someone who is closer to their age. At ConnecTeen, our volunteers don’t have any authority or judgement over our users and I think that creates a safe space to open up and be vulnerable.

Volunteer: I think its because as teenagers ourselves, we can relate better with the feelings that other teenagers might feel at certain times. It is because we are all at such a close range in terms of our age group, we are capable of talking through what we’ve been through in relating with other teenagers.

Volunteer: Teens now face different problems than the teens of the past generations. Although many issues that have existed in the past such as drugs for example still exist today, the rise of social media and the internet has changed the lives of teens completely. Teens are now exposed to different ideas such as ones regarding their sexuality, body images, etc. Other teens, who were actually born and raised with such social media tend to have a better understanding and can relate better to teens going through such issues and struggles.

 

Deanne : What does ConnecTeen offer when teens do make the call?

When teens decide to contact us, we offer non-judgmental support. Our volunteers will never lecture you or make you feel bad for the decisions you’ve made or for what you’ve experienced. We want to connect you to the people in your life that could help or to free resources in the city. Our support is confidential and anonymous so you can share whatever you feel comfortable sharing which gives you a lot of the freedom to decide what you want to talk to about. Our volunteers are highly trained in crisis intervention, so whatever issue you are dealing with, they are prepared to support you and help you through it. Sometimes, you just need someone to listen to you without offering advice or trying to solve your problems. A lot of what we do is listening and giving you some of the tools you may need to work through it.

Volunteer: We mainly offer emotional support, and a place where they can tell us what they feel without pressure. We let the conversation flow according to the pace in which the callers want to pace themselves at, and we validate and normalize with how they are feeling. We also offer resources like counseling, a place to stay, or financial support if it is desired by the callers.

Volunteer: We offer emotional support, validation and empathy for those in crisis. We also offer resources for  those who need professional help / information / advice.

Deanne : What have you learned about teens since working/volunteering at ConnecTeen

I’ve learned that youth face a variety of different issues- many of which I never thought about as an adult. For example, we get a lot of contacts regarding financial issues, abuse in the home or in relationships, wanting to move out on their own and dealing with the fundamental “firsts” (i.e. first break up, first fight with your best friend, first time failing a class etc). I really enjoy working at ConnecTeen because I get to learn many different perspectives from both the volunteers and the users who contact our lines. I’m constantly reminded of how strong and resilient the youth of Calgary are because they are so courageous to reach out for help.

Volunteer: I’ve learned a great deal about communicating with other people, in general. Learning about diverse social issues that our society and our youth have opened my eyes and provided me with a perspective that broke me away from the stigma. I became more unbiased, informed, social and approachable to others, and I also think I became a better person, overall.

Volunteer: A lot of teens at my age are going through really tough times. Teens tend to be shy reaching out at first, but I feel like this service is really helpful for teens in terms of finding them the right resources and providing the emotional support they need. The internet is like a double-edged sword: teens have access to unlimited amounts of information, but they don’t know what services are right and appropriate for them. Also, I feel like a lot of teens are unable to talk about their feelings and situation to other people, especially to those around them because they feel embarrassed or scared. Thus, ConnecTeen provides the anonymous help they need so that they can feel safe while still receiving the support and help they need.

Deanne : What is the best part of being a teen today?

I think the best part of being a teen today is the availability of information and resources teens can access. When I was growing up, I had no idea what was out there for support. Now, everything is available with the click of a button or a short phone call. I love that ConnecTeen offers text and online chat too, I think it really helps youth connect to us in a way that makes them feel comfortable.

Volunteer: We have vast amount of resources that we can access whenever we want to, wherever we want to (like connecteen). Also, the best part of being a teenager is that we have a great deal of potential in how we can still shape ourselves. We are still learning and growing, faster than ever before. To have that opportunity, I believe is the best part of being a teenager in our world.

Volunteer: We have so many opportunities to build our future. From academics, sports, volunteering, jobs.. there are limitless opportunities that given the effort, we can achieve our dreams.

Deep appreciation goes to Vanessa DeSouza and her team for taking the time to respond to my questions. ConnecTeen also offers FREE resources for schools, so please connect with ConnecTeen!

Online calgaryconnecteen.com

Twitter at twitter.com/YYCConnecTeen

Facebook at www.facebook.com/calgaryconnecteen

Instagram at www.instagram.com/yycconnecteen/

YouTube at www.youtube.com/user/DistressCentreYYC?feature=watch