BRADENTON -- As a middle school teacher in Manatee County, Shannon Summers grew weary of hearing students use the phrase “That’s gay” to mean stupid or dumb.
Little did she know that her efforts to educate those misusing the words would catch the interest of young gay students and ultimately give her the idea to open a youth center for lesbian, gay bisexual, transgender and questioning youth.
That center is called the Prism Youth Initiative for ages 13-23 and it’s located at Bradenton Central Christian Church, 926 15th St. W. Summers says, however, that the center has no religious affiliation.
Since the center’s opening in December, Summers said she’s seen the glaring need to help young people who feel they have been discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.
One student told Summers about the time he was singled out on a school bus. The bus driver asked all boys and girls to get on two different sides of the bus. Then, the male student -- who Summers said could be described as “effeminate” -- was asked to come to the front where the driver asked the boy which side he would choose. The driver was fired that day, Summers said.
“The schools are willing to work with me,” Summers said. “They don’t want this harassment.”
Prism has served more than two dozen young people, Summers said. With those services comes the hardships associated with coming out as a member of the gay community. Students filled out surveys at Prism to shed light on the pain and hardships of being bullied or harassed in school by students and adults.
The anonymous surveys revealed that 96 percent of the students at Prism were bullied in Manatee County schools. Fifty percent reported being homeless or are at risk of being homeless.
“We’ve had kids who have actually been thrown out of their parents’ house,” Summers said. “We got three in one month. It was crazy.”
Prism Youth Council President Michelle Morrell, 17, said harassment goes on a lot.
“It’s heartbreaking. We try to get kids help,” Michelle said. “We try to get them to say something about it -- to raise awareness.”
Andrew Character, president of the center’s board of directors, said the center currently operates as a referral service. But plans are underway to grow. Prism has applied for 501(c) 3 tax exempt charity status. The nonprofit hopes to go into case management and become a safe haven for youth.
Prism operates on donations, Character said. But the goal is to one day employ someone full-time to operate the center for longer hours. Summers, who has a background in social work, opens the center after school and on Saturdays from noon to 3 p.m. She said it’s likely expanded summer hours will be offered soon.
“This has been something really close to me,” Character said about the center. “I thought it was exceptionally important. And the students seem to be excited we have it here in Manatee County.”
Summers has been surprised about how the students involved in the facility have stepped up and become leaders such as Michelle.
“They just stepped up,” she said. “They formed their own youth council -- set up a student code of conduct.”
Michelle said, “It’s important to be a stable group before we can help other people.”
Summers said Prism also looks forward to being a full-time after-school program that provides parent support and creates housing for older youth displaced from their homes. But the most important element of Prism’s work is “empowering the youth,” Summers said.
“I’ve seen a lot of kids that are way more comfortable with their sexuality,” Michelle said.
“The welcome we’ve gotten from the community is just outstanding,” Summers said.