Meet the Guest

Heather Wilkie Director, Zebra Coalition

Heather Wilkie joined Zebra Coalition in 2014 as a mental health counseling intern. She has a clinical background and a history of nonprofit work, including crisis counseling for domestic violence survivors and volunteer work as a victim advocate. She is passionate about her work with the LGBTQ+ community and Zebra Coalition’s mission to provide all youth with a safe, supportive environment.

Transcript

  • Trey Dyer

    Hello, and welcome to another edition of Ready for Recovery. I'm your host, Trey Dyer. Our guest today is Heather Wilkie, the executive director of Zebra Coalition in Orlando, Florida. Zebra Coalition is a fantastic nonprofit organization that focuses on supporting LGBTQ+ youth in a number of different capacities. Heather is here today to tell us more about Zebra Coalition and what they are doing for youth in our community.

    Thank you for joining us for another episode of Ready for Recovery. Today my guest is Heather Wilkie of the Zebra Coalition in Orlando, Florida. Heather, it's great to have you on with us today.

  • Heather Wilkie

    Thank you for having me.

  • Trey Dyer

    We're so happy to hear about Zebra Coalition and the things you guys are doing in our community. So I would love to hear kind of the start. Why don't you just tell us about Zebra Coalition, what you do as an organization?

  • Heather Wilkie

    Sure, so Zebra Coalition is an organization that works with LGBTQ+ youth, it's really all youth, but we focus on issues that are specific to the LGBT population. Our age range is 13 to 24, so we see youth in all stages of their adolescent life. Our housing program specifically is for 18 and older. We have a drop-in center that's located in the downtown Orlando area where we can see youth throughout the day. We have two hours every day that are open for drop-in hours. So anyone who is experiencing homelessness, or just is looking for a safe space, or the need to connect socially, we're able to do that. Every day we focus in our programming on a different topic. So throughout the week we're doing a lot of different types of programming.

  • Trey Dyer

    Very cool. What would some of those topics be?

  • Heather Wilkie

    On Mondays for example, we have a gender variant group, so we focus on issues that are related to gender. A lot of our youth, we're looking at about 65 percent of the youth that we see are gender variant. Meaning that they may be transgender or non-binary, or somewhere on that spectrum of gender. We also do skills groups where we have members of the community come in and offer specific workshops, for example budgeting, financial planning, how to cook, anything that you can use. We have a lot of fun activities, we have an art group in collaboration with the Orlando Museum of Art where the kids have fun and they do different mediums of art. Yeah, so we're open to you know, new ideas and workshop ideas, we do a lot of different programming.

  • Trey Dyer

    Very cool. So who was Zebra Coalition created by? And why was it started in the first place?

  • Heather Wilkie

    Okay, so back in 2010 we were actually, we had a few different community members that decided that they were seeing a rise in and a need for programming that was specific to youth homelessness. It actually came out of an organization that focuses a lot on substance abuse. We were seeing a rise in substance use for specifically related to LBGTQ youth, and our community didn't really have an answer for how we were going to provide services for this specific population. So at the time an organization called the Center for Drug Free Living, founded us as a program, so since 2010 we've grown up, and have established our own sort of existence both technically and from a cultural perspective. We have starting in 2013 we opened up a drop-in center and started housing LGBT youth. So we currently we have 8 beds, and we're able to house youth, we call it bridge housing. So it's a temporary housing scenario that helps them get back on their feet. Then we also have rapid rehousing which is more of a long term plan that helps them move towards self-sufficiency.

  • Trey Dyer

    Amazing. That's really cool, so what is exactly your title at Zebra Coalition? And why would you say you’re passionate about helping LGBTQ+ youth.

  • Heather Wilkie

    So my title is the director of the organization, and I actually started with Zebra Coalition back in 2014 as a mental health counseling intern. So my background is a clinical background. I'm working toward licensure at this point in my career, but I come from a long history of nonprofit work. I worked in the domestic violence movement for 15 years. So I think my drive is more from a mental health perspective, but certainly I mean I identify as a lesbian, and I'm well connected in the LGBTQ community, so that is definitely a passion of mine. I would have loved to have had services like Zebra Coalition when I was younger and struggling and going through issues related to my sexual orientation.

  • Trey Dyer

    That's great. You know you talk about mental health, and I think that's one of the things that plays a huge role in not only this population's challenges, but also the general population. Can you talk about maybe how mental health is not necessarily an issue, but how people's mental health are affected within the LGBTQ+ community. Like maybe a youth member of the community.

  • Heather Wilkie

    Yeah. You know just on a basic level, if you don't have a supportive environment growing up and feel like you can be, feel that you have a safe place to turn to, whether it's a family member, a friend, a teacher, or a community member, then a lot of mental health issues can develop and that can look like a lot of different things. It can look like anxiety, depression, often times youth are turning toward unhealthy behaviors that can look like substance abuse, homelessness. You know we see a lot of human trafficking in the LGBTQ community at a very young age. Often times if family don't support youth when they come out, they may not feel comfortable living in their house, or maybe parents are kicking them out of the house. Then unfortunately a lot of unhealthy things happen from there, I mean we say that it's about five days from the time the youth become homeless to the time that they can end up a lot of doing a lot of terrible things.

    Becoming addicted to drugs and you know for survival skills. A lot of times youth are doing drugs because they need to survive. You know we have the story of youth where they need to stay awake for their safety. So their doing things like methamphetamine, you know and speed that help them stay up, and sometimes it's just to stay alive. So I mean that's the extreme version, but I'm telling you that because it is an issue, and that's what we see oftentimes. We also have, on a positive note, a lot of parents do support their kids, so we have a parent support group, and we try to really work with them at a young age to avoid a lot of those terrible things that I was just talking about.

  • Trey Dyer

    You mentioned five days, that just seems like such a short amount of time for all these horrible things to happen to these kids, I mean how difficult is it for those kids on the street during those five days, and what usually happens if they do not receive support during that time?

  • Heather Wilkie

    Well I mean five days is an estimate, but if you think about it, imagine yourself becoming homeless. Not having anywhere to turn to, and trying to survive on the street. Most likely in order to survive you're going to do something that is unhealthy, or extreme, or something that you would have never thought or found yourself doing. If you interview youth who are over — you know who have overcome some of these problems, you hear that story. That story is very consistent with I didn't have anywhere to go, and so I ended up doing this, and I would never have imagined myself doing that. You know, because you're in survival mode, and because you need to be safe, you end up working with people or living with people who you would never have thought of. Maybe even end up in a relationship with someone who would have never been the case had you not been homeless, and then also you are becoming addicted to drugs, sometimes it's even against their own will that they are addicted to drugs.

    You know when we look at the sex trafficking world, often times pimped, you know that's kind of the street name of that. But the person who's in control will get them addicted to drugs so they can have more control over them. So then you become the situation where you're dependent on that person to get your fix. So we see a lot in the LGBTQ community, we say it's three times the risk for substance abuse, and for homelessness than a non-LGBTQ youth, and the reason for that is often times they're more likely to be sort of forced in a position where they don't have anybody else, and so they're dependent upon these people to survive.

  • Trey Dyer

    I know you've mentioned a lot of them already, but what are the most common challenges that the LGBTQ+ youth population faces, and what are some of the most common that you see at Zebra Coalition?

  • Heather Wilkie

    It ranges and a lot of it is based on the age. So for the younger youth, like say 13 to 15, they're struggles are a little different. They're struggling with how to be accepted at school: How do I train my teacher to use the correct pronouns? Am I going to go on HRP, (which is hormone replacement therapy)? What is that going to look like for me? Do I need to change my name legally? Are my parents going to support me? So you know you're dealing with a lot of peer issues, peer-related issues, and that can also be a point of concern with substance abuse as well because, even though you may be housed and not in that extreme poverty situation, you're dealing with social pressure. And what we know — LGBTQ or not — special pressure can be a cause for turning to substances. You know, feeling like you're not being accepted. So with them, you know, you look at the older population and you're maybe dealing with homelessness, maybe dealing with just trying to fit in in another environment. We have a lot of youth we work with who are not homeless at all, and they are in college and trying to navigate those systems, you know? So it just depends on the age.

  • Trey Dyer

    Absolutely. You know you mentioned kind of being accepted, like kids trying to be accepted at school and their teachers using the right terminologies and being correct in how they address people's identities. How would you say that's changed over the last like even 10 years? Do you think that society is getting better about being more accepting, or are we still facing challenges that would be similar to, you know, 10 years ago, 15 years ago?

  • Heather Wilkie

    I think that the big difference now is about gender identity. I think we're seeing a shift in issues that are related to lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, like sexual orientation, and so now it's more about accepting people and understanding people from their gender spectrum. So for example, not to age myself, but when I was in high school I feel like it was more of a challenge, as far as sexuality was concerned. Rather than gender identity wasn't even really talked about. So now youth are coming out and talking about gender at a very young age, and I would have never imagined that in my experience at that time. So I think, yeah, I think the conversation just has shifted a little bit, and we lump LGBT, like it's all a category for sexual orientation and gender identity, but they're two very different things.

  • Trey Dyer

    Yeah. Do you see, maybe within the youth population, like kind of the start of a movement that's going to change like the mentality of how people view identity, view gender identity?

  • Heather Wilkie

    I think so. I mean I see so many supportive parents. You know, I see a lot of parents who really just want to understand it, and they've listened to their kids from a very young age. In the mental health world we talk about developing personality and how gender is developed around the age of like six years old. Where you really start to understand yourself as far as gender is concerned. So we work with a lot of youth. I have a parent right now who has an eight-year-old who is experiencing a lot of gender dysphoria is kind of what we call it in the mental health world, but the youth is biologically female and identifies as male, and we're talking about an 8-year-old here. So it's not even youth, we're talking about a kid, you know? But you know the parent is doing the best she can to try to understand it and do what's healthy for kid. So I think we're seeing more supportive services and more supportive parents. The school situation is a little behind, because I think people are fearful of what to do, but we have a lot of work to do in that area.

  • Trey Dyer

    Very good. So we've talked about it a lot already, but can we maybe delve in a little bit deeper into how addiction affects the LGBTQ+ youth community and what you guys see at Zebra Coalition, maybe some common traits with addiction affecting people, like what are the substances most of the time — I know you mentioned amphetamines, maybe some of the reasons why this youth population turns to substances?

  • Heather Wilkie

    Yeah, you know there's this culture around methamphetamine and specifically with gay men, a lot of research has been done on this, and I was reading an article the other day that came out of New York about how there's this meth culture that specifically impacts gay men. I have a personal experience with one of my best friends who actually is not with us anymore who was addicted to methamphetamines. So I was sort of exposed to that world just through his eyes for a while, and I see that happening in Orlando. I think it's been going on here for about 10 years. So focusing specifically on the gay male community, research has shown that there's a lot of studies basically being done now about the use of methamphetamine in that specific community and you know there's theories behind it that it may be due to the over-sexualization that methamphetamine can provide I guess, and the high keeps you awake, and keeps you wanting to do things. I think that's attached to the party scene, the club scene, you know all of that. But you know I don't want to —

  • Trey Dyer

    Methamphetamine is also a libido booster isn't it?

  • Heather Wilkie

    I think so ... I mean that's not necessarily my area, but I'm sure it helps to being able to stay up and promote sexuality, all of that. But you know I don't want to overgeneralize and talk just about that specific area. We see substance abuse all over the place. We have an opioid issue just like most of the country does, here in Orlando. Youth attaching to alcohol, you know that's the easiest thing they can get their hands on. So there's a lot of alcoholism. We had a youth who was actually addicted to methamphetamines and he stayed in our program. He just recently, this is only three weeks ago, transitioned into a residential rehab program. But he got sober and stayed in our housing program for about two months, and we were able to link him up with a rehab that's very close to here. So he's doing well, luckily. We keep in touch with him and we're very, very proud of him.

  • Trey Dyer

    So for instance, when you have someone who comes to Zebra Coalition and they're struggling with substance use and addiction, what would be the general support that you guys would offer to them?

  • Heather Wilkie

    Okay, so since we are attached to the Behavioral Health Center, we do have resources for residential rehab facilities within our organization and within our coalition. It really depends on where they are. If they need that physical detox, then we would want to send them through that program. Our counselors — we have two licensed mental health therapists, and they're trained in substance abuse. So we are able to offer case management and mental health counseling focused on substance abuse issues. But we don't consider ourselves a substance abuse facility.

  • Trey Dyer

    Right.

  • Heather Wilkie

    So we do a lot of that work in collaboration with those who are substance-abuse focused. But it's a way for them to get sober, kind of balance themselves out, like this youth that I was telling you about — he was able to kind of become self-sufficient in a way, but still needed that extra support, so we got him into a program.

  • Trey Dyer

    Very good.

  • Heather Wilkie

    But we kept, we kept our eyes on him for a couple of months. We made sure that he was held accountable for everything that he was doing.

  • Trey Dyer

    Very good. Do you have any other stories, maybe about like a success story from Zebra Coalition that you'd like to share with us about somebody struggling with substance use?

  • Heather Wilkie

    Yeah, yeah. And since it's so new I won't use his name, you know? But he came to us, like I told you he came to us having struggled with methamphetamine addiction for several years. We saw him kind of move in and out of that addiction for a while, you know? He came to us, he needed services, but he unfortunately started using again and was back on the street, so about the probably third or fourth time that he came to us, he said he was ready, you know? And we worked with him, we were able to provide housing for him, and eventually transition him into a rehab facility. When he first got there, we sent him a card just to let him know that we're still thinking about you, you know?

  • Trey Dyer

    That's so nice.

  • Heather Wilkie

    He checks in with us about once a week, just to make sure that you know, we're still listening and if he finishes the program successfully, he could always come back into our housing program, we have services to help him out once he comes back to a community. He's a little bit outside of Orlando right now, but we're here for him and we wish him the best and make sure that he's doing well.

  • Trey Dyer

    That's amazing, that's what it's all about, right? It's helping people who need it.

  • Heather Wilkie

    It is, it is.

  • Trey Dyer

    You know one of the things that's been huge — as a member of the Orlando community and just the Central Florida community in general — one of the things that I hear about that Zebra Coalition did better than almost anyone, was how you responded to the Pulse shooting in 2016. Can you maybe tell us a little bit about that time and what you guys did as a coalition to help the population in Orlando?

  • Heather Wilkie

    Yes, you know it's so fresh on my mind because actually yesterday the interim memorial ceremony, we had that you know at Pulse yesterday, so I was actually at Post yesterday for that opening. But now almost two years we're looking at June 12th coming up and during that time, we're located right across the street from the LGBT center that focuses on adults. So we're kind of in the “gayberhood” I guess per se, if we had one in Orlando.

  • Trey Dyer

    Mills/50 area?

  • Heather Wilkie

    Yeah, Mills/50. You’re familiar.

  • Trey Dyer

    Yeah.

  • Heather Wilkie

    Because of that, because of our location, we were kind of in a prime position to be able to do a lot of community response. The media had warned us initially, and so what we did was we opened up a hotline that ended up running for two weeks prior to the city opening up the OUAC, which was the Orlando United Assistance Center. The city opened up a crisis response immediately, but once they opened up the therapeutic, like long-term therapeutic services, we handed that over to them. But we staffed volunteers who were mental health counselors for about a month following Pulse in our facilities. Our house is tiny, so it was an interesting few weeks. We had volunteers just crammed up in these office spaces, answering hotline calls, and working with anybody who came in who was a family member, survivor, or even somebody from the community who was just impacted, because we were all impacted, you know? We continue to do that work, I mean it's not ... you know obviously it's not a crisis anymore, but the trauma is still there for a lot of people. And we're very hyper-aware of that.

  • Trey Dyer

    You know, I remember being in Orlando during that time and I lived right next to Pulse. I can see it from my front door, and it was a very ...

  • Heather Wilkie

    Oh, wow.

  • Trey Dyer

    It was a very just insane time to be in Orlando, but I can't put it in words to this day. So maybe you could do a better job and maybe tell people what it was like to see how the greater Orlando community responded, just as a city, and came together during that time. Like what did you guys see at Zebra Coalition?

  • Heather Wilkie

    You know, it was like no other experience, like you said, it is hard to put into words. I mean just to give you an example. People wanted to help out, and so the crisis hotline turned into a hotline for people to reach out to find out how they could help, right? So we weren't necessarily even responding to the crisis from actual survivors, it was more like how can I help? What can I do? What are you all doing? A physical description of it, is that people stopped by and brought us water, and I just remember in our trauma center, it was from floor to ceiling, just water, water everywhere, you know? Because people didn't know what else to do, right? But they wanted to do something, so we had water for a good year at Zebra. But I mean it was just phenomenal. We received letters from around the globe, other youth organizations reaching out, thinking of us, art that they would send, I mean photos.

    It was phenomenal the support that we received and then specifically the LGBTQ community, the leadership group, organized an organization called the One Orlando Alliance and that organization still exists. We actually just hired an executive director to oversee it. But it's essentially an alliance of LGBTQ leaders who continue the conversation about trauma and how we're going to move forward as Orlando, which is now known for this tragedy. Prior to that it was Disney, right? So now it's still Disney, but it's Disney and Pulse. So what do we do to make sure that we're a community that's a strong community and an example. Hopefully no other community has to go through this, but it's already happened a few times, right? So how do we serve a ton of those, the role models, or communities that did something so phenomenal at the time.

  • Trey Dyer

    Yeah, absolutely. And I got to tell you, I travel around the state to different drug coalition meetings, community committees that come together to work on substance abuse, and Zebra Coalition comes up all the time with how you guys responded to the Pulse shooting, and how people were inspired by that. So it's kind of cool to know when people go out around the state, around the country, they know about Zebra Coalition and what you guys did. So I think that's a really great thing.

  • Heather Wilkie

    It's so good to hear. I appreciate you sharing that with me.

  • Trey Dyer

    Yeah, no problem. So transitioning a little bit, what are some of the maybe plans, or events that you have coming up for the rest of the year?

  • Heather Wilkie

    Yeah, so our biggest event of the year — well I'll tell you what we have going on in a few weeks. We have our Gay Days event, which historically what that looks like is a lot of people wearing red t-shirts and go to Disney. And so what we do is a ... we have a Youth Pride Day, and we call it Youth Pride Day because Gay Day is associated with a lot of substance abuse, and a lot of partying and things. We don't really want our kids associated with that, but we do want to celebrate pride. So Disney, we are so fortunate that they support us, and we're taking 60 youth and chaperones to Disney on June 2nd, and all of us are going to be wearing our Zebra Pride shirts and having a great time at Magic Kingdom. So that's coming up. We have several fundraising events happening. We have one that's going to be in September that's an art, wine-art box where we have local artists paint boxes, and we auction them off. We have that coming up.

    Then we have our Come Out With Pride event, which is one of the largest pride events, I would imagine, in the country. But I'm thinking we're probably in the top 5, so definitely the second largest one in Florida, where we have, I mean last year it was over 150,000 people came through the pride event. And Zebra does a bowling prevention activity on the lawn and we march in the parade. We have our GSA youth, we have over 300 marchers last year from different high schools, and they bring their high school banner and march with us in the parade. So we got a lot of planning in that aspect to do. And it also serves as a fundraiser for us. We’re considering doing a 5K. We’ve done that in the past, and we're in the planning process for that right now.

  • Trey Dyer

    Very good. So Heather what would you say to any youth out there that is struggling with their identity, with coming out to their parents, with their mental health? What would you say to them?

  • Heather Wilkie

    You know it's so cliché now, but it does get better I promise. There are a lot of organizations out there, you know? The Trevor Project is one. It's actually — The Trevor Project is one of our coalition partners, and they offer a 24/7 suicide prevention hotline. But really you can be in any sort of phase in your coming-out process and give them a call 24 hours a day. They also have a chat option, so please you know, thetrevorproject.org is their information, and you can check them out. I always recommend no matter where you are in the country that's a great resource. A lot of cities though, especially the larger cities, have LGBT youth organizations similar to Zebra Coalition. They may not offer the exact same services, but there's some great ones out there. I've had the opportunity to visit a lot of them. And then there's something called CenterLink, which is a LGBT organization that helps with all centers across the country. You can actually go to their website, click on the area where you live and find your local resource.

  • Trey Dyer

    Very good. What would you say to any LGBTQ+ youth that is struggling with addiction?

  • Heather Wilkie

    Well, I would say that support is out there. We understand what you're going through; we understand why you may be going through that. Every person is different, but there's help and there's hope. And people get out of this situation all the time, so hang in there. Hang in there and get some help.

  • Trey Dyer

    Okay so, how can people get involved with Zebra Coalition?

  • Heather Wilkie

    First of all, the best way to get involved no matter where you live is follow us on social media. Due to the fact that we're a youth organization, we do a lot of work around social media, so all of our events are posted, and we do a lot of awareness about the issues, especially around homelessness and addiction. So please follow us on social media. Also on our website which is zebrayouth.org. We have a way that you can actually sign up to volunteer if you're local. But you can even do things online, like we have different donation opportunities that sponsor your birthday. So if you're living in California, and you're not sure how to get involved, well that's something that you can do. You can sponsor a fundraiser for your birthday or any celebration that you have coming up. So get involved, follow the issues. We do a lot of stuff online. So no matter where you live you can.

  • Trey Dyer

    Very cool. And for your social media accounts, is that Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, what are the ones you guys are active on?

  • Heather Wilkie

    All of the above.

  • Trey Dyer

    Very good. All right, so pick your poison, if you want to follow on social media.

  • Heather Wilkie

    Exactly.

  • Trey Dyer

    Alright, well, Heather, this has been a fantastic conversation. I really appreciate you joining me today. Zebra Coalition is doing amazing work in Orlando. We're very happy to have you here in our community. So thank you again.

  • Heather Wilkie

    Thank you.

  • Trey Dyer

    To find out more about Zebra Coalition, go to www.drugrehab.com. Thanks for listening to another episode of Ready For Recovery. For drugrehab.com I'm Trey Dyer.

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