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San Diego national educator conference on LGBTQIA students has "changed lives forever"

SAN DIEGO -- The third annual national educator conference, "Supporting Students ~ Saving Lives," held this last weekend has now come and gone, but the seeds that were planted are already beginning to sprout and take shape back at the school districts and individual campuses around the country.

Aimed at empowering K-12 school counselors and educators of LGBTQIA students to make school campuses a safer, more welcoming environment, the sold out conference did just that.

The conference kicked off on Friday, February 17, 2012, with more than triple the number of attendees at the first conference, which debuted just two years prior, in February of 2010.

Dedication makes a difference

Conference founder is Trish Hatch, who is also Director of both the School Counseling Graduate Program at San Diego State University and the Center for Excellence in School Counseling and Leadership (CESCaL), the non-profit that oversees the conference as one of its many functions.

Due to the continued expansion of the conference and the attention required from her many other hats, she chose to step down as chair this year, but has remained engaged throughout its planning and operational stages.

"We started the conference for school counselors three years ago, but we quickly realized it needed to target a larger audience - all educators," Hatch explained.

"This year we had sessions by and for teachers, nurses, social workers, counselors, administrators, students and families. We realize there is a tremendous need for all educators, community members and families to gain the knowledge, attitudes and skills to work together to support students and save lives," she said.

This year's chair, Vincent Pompei, left his full-time job as a school counselor last summer to focus on this important role.

After a successful stint as co-chair last year with Hatch, Pompei worked diligently the past 12 months to engage as many more educators and educational leaders as possible for this year's event, and was pleased with the outcome.

"I am beyond thrilled with the number of educators who traveled to San Diego this past weekend, from 29 states and three countries," Pompei told San Diego Gay & Lesbian News a couple days after the conference had completed. "We actually sold out a few days before, with 500 registrants."

The thirty speakers ranged from the executive vice president of programming and production at MTV network, to the executive director of the National PFLAG, and to the president of the American School Counselors Association (ASCA).

Many of the leading civil rights organizations in the country were represented, as well as a large number of organizations to support public education.

There was even a representative from the White House, Gautam Raghavan, associate director in the White House’s Office of Public Engagement, who shared a letter signed by President Obama to the crowd assembled on Friday night.

"I send greetings to all those attending Supporting Students ~ Saving Lives. The future of our Nation will be shaped by the young people we empower today. Events like Supporting Students ~ Saving Lives remind us that as parents, teachers and community members, we all share a responsibility to make sure our next generation can thrive in safe and inclusive environments. Our classrooms should be filled with chances to dream, discover, and grow free from fear, and my administration is committed to ensuring our schools are places where every young person, including LGBT youth, can achieve anything they can imagine. I thank you for your leadership and wish you all the best for an enjoyable and inspiring conference."

Raghavan spent his last assignment on the DADT working group and is now the outreach liaison for the LGBT community.

Intense and emotional responses

Throughout the weekend, whether it was the audience en masse in the auditorium or those present in each of the smaller breakout sessions, attendees were riveted by the carefully chosen list of speakers and educational leaders assembled from around the nation to help make change happen.

"You could see intense and emotional reactions to the keynote speakers, who gave the attendees the empowerment they needed to get past their fears and discomfort, and to become "visible" allies and strong advocates for LGBT students," Pompei said.

With so many quality presenters, Pompei was at a loss to choose any specific highlight from the weekend.

"The fact that nearly 30 national organizations and associations flew to San Diego to present featured sessions to share their amazing resources with educators," Pompei said. "Most of these also exhibited and made themselves available to have further conversations to guide and help these educators make plans for change,"

According to Pompei, one of the more moving moments of the weekend was when vice president of the National Education Association (NEA), Lily Eskelsen, gave her welcome speech.

"She got very personal about having an openly gay son. Her words were powerful, personal and gave everyone a sense of urgency that we must create change for these youth now," he said.

On Sunday, 75 additional high school students (both LGBT and allies) and educational advisors from the local San Diego area were also invited to attend the plenary session and to hear from Daniel Joseph Baker, an openly gay young man and a semi-finalist on last year's America's Got Talent.

Baker shared his own story of that involved years of torment and bullying, which started in elementary school. He ended his session by performing a few songs, including a very empowering song by Lady Gaga.

A memorable and moving weekend for all

After sitting in this year, San Diego-based novelist Walter Meyer has plans to present a workshop next year. Meyer recently released "Rounding Third," a coming of age book focused on bullying.

"The information that so many of the speakers shared was amazing and I will be able to use it, as I travel around the country speaking about my book and bullying," Meyer said. "It was also great to meet the leaders of so many organizations like [the] National Education Association (NEA), Trevor Project, Lambda Legal and to meet Daniel Joseph Baker, but the best things I took away from the conference will sound really corny, but it's true: hope and energy.

"The excitement in each of those conference rooms of people, so eager to learn and share knowledge of how to help kids -- all kids, but especially LGBT students -- and the feeling that because of passionate people like these caring educators, there is hope for students.

"I met so many great people from Alaska, Iowa, Pennsylvania, even North Dakota. They came from all over, with one goal in mind and that is helping gay youth. That is amazing," Meyer said.

Local activist and San Diego Gay & Lesbian News Staff Writer Benny Cartwright also attended the conference, volunteering his personal time for the second year in a row, to host and interview presenters and other educational leaders on the red carpet at the event.

"It was an honor to be able to spend the weekend with so many inspirational educators who are the ones making change every single day," Cartwright said. "It is these people who are the frontlines of the bullying crisis, and work hard every day to teach their students about respect and treating all people equally."

Conference attendee Deanna Foust, a retired Navy veteran residing in Northern Virginia, now teaches high schoolers how to prepare for the military.

"I'm the NJROTC instructor and GSA Advisor at my school," Foust said. "The conference was an incredible opportunity to gather information from so many sources! I can't believe they were able to get all those resources under one roof. I want to get with my school's administrators so we can plan to implement training for our staff. So many of them are uncomfortable discussing LGBT issues.

"This is just the beginning for us. Our GSA club has only been active for about three months, so it was helpful to talk with other advisors to get ideas from them and to also talk with other students. I'm so thankful for being given the opportunity to attend and can't wait for next year!"

"Working in a university setting for so many years, I see how important the work that those work with K-12 children is," Cartwright said. "These educators have the opportunity to make a huge difference in a child's future attitudes and the results are seen when the kids reach college age."

Although Cartwright knew he was gay in high school, he never officially came out to his classmates.

"It was particularly inspiring to see the high school GSA students attend the conference on Sunday morning. It would have meant the world to me to be able to attend something like that when I was a teenager and I could see the excitement in the kid's faces as they learned about all the resources available to them, and saw all the people who care so much about them and their future!"

Already making an impact

Supporting Students ~ Saving Lives is the only conference of its kind focused on the needs of LGBTQIA students, and although preparations for such a large event were sometimes grueling, Pompei knows it is making a difference.

"Several educators approached me in tears and shared with me how the conference has changed their lives forever," he said. "It makes every moment -- the stress, sleepless nights, the tears and every drop of sweat this past year -- well worth it."

Pompei is already hearing from attendees who have taken what they have learned back to their schools, spoken about the conference to their students and have put things into action.

Many of the counselors and teachers have also already placed anti-bullying posters and "safe space" signs in their offices or classrooms, sending a clear message to all students on their campuses that bullying will not be tolerated, while also making sure kids at risk know they have a place to escape such behavior.

Pompei was also informed that several new Gay Straight Alliances (GSA) have already popped up this week, in response to students seeing these new visible signs of alliance on their campuses.

Sponsors made it happen

Some of the real heroes of the weekend were the organizations that helped make the conference happen.

"This conference would not have been possible without the amazing support and contributions of our sponsors," Pompei said. "I have to send out a very special thank you our generous corporate sponsors including, Southwest Airlines, Wells Fargo, San Diego Gas & Electric and AT&T.

"I must also acknowledge the sizable donations from the California Teachers Association, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), the Human Rights Campaign and the American Federation of Teachers, that also presented featured sessions.

"There are no words to describe the amazing amount of love and support we received from our sponsors and we look forward to working with them again for our 2013 conference," he said.

"We are overwhelmed by the tremendous support we received from the community," founder Hatch added. "We appreciate Urban Mo's, Baja Betty's and Gossip Grill, for their warm welcome during the annual 'Cultural Plunge'!

"I also wish to also thank the LGBT Center for the fabulous tour and their management for opening the Center to over 150+ conference attendees on a holiday weekend," she said.

There has been talk in the past about moving the conference around to different locations in the country or adding a second, east coast session, but for now, plans are to keep it in sunny San Diego.

As momentum continues to grow year after year for this important conference, all Pompei is tight-lipped about the future.

"There are big plans for next year," he said.

Daniel Joseph Baker (from America's Got Talent) singing "The Edge of Glory" at the National Educator conference last Sunday.

To learn more about CESCaL, the Supporting Students ~ Saving Lives annual conference, or to offer your own services, sponsorship or donations for next year's conference, visit the website or contact them via email, at events@cescal.org.

Photos, Top left: Conference Chair Vincent Pompei (left), Lily Eskelsen vice president, National Education Association, and Paula Monroe, executive committee, National Education Association; Middle: Ben Cartwright interviews Adam Bouska and Jeff Parshley, founders of the NO H8 Campaign; Bottom: The enthusiastic crowd of educators and counselors attending the 2012 conference.