Links provides free, confidential teen services to the LGBT community

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Erschel DeLeon, Pride Youth Program director at Links. | KIMBERLY ELSHAM ~ FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA

In college, Erschel DeLeon found herself crying in her dorm room after a powerful chance meeting that proved pivotal in her imminent career path. During a wellness internship, she met a gay man with AIDS who said his family rejected him when he revealed his sexuality and that he had contracted HIV. His family conveyed their belief that he deserved the deadly disease because he was gay.

“That conversation has always fueled my passion for helping people,” DeLeon said.

Almost immediately, she made it her ambition to challenge the attitudes of those less accepting of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) community and to reach out to youth that identify as LGBT. She has made it her life’s work, first as an HIV/AIDS health educator and presenter within the community, and now as Pride Youth Program director at Links, a nonprofit organization in Northfield. Along the way, DeLeon has heard many more recounts than ever desired: of fear, isolation, depression, self-harm, rejection and even homelessness. Over time, she has felt the reward in helping people to realize that their sexual orientation is just one part of who they are.

“The LGBT youth is no different from their heterosexual peers,” she said. “They want the same things: to have friends, to get involved in school activities, to date and to feel like they belong.”

Since 1973, Links has provided free confidential adolescent health services and education to the LGBT community through three main programs: clinic and counseling, community education and the Pride Youth Program.

“What makes the youth special is their ability to persevere. They all have strength within and sometimes they just need a little help finding it,” said the director.

DeLeon’s goal is to make sure that every LGBT high-school-aged youth that she can reach knows their value, in part by coming together to find support, friendship and guidance. Pride has four groups per week, including one in Evanston, Northfield and Palatine. Each meeting is set around a different discussion or activity, and while some kids attend regularly, newcomers are always welcome.

“Some say that, for three hours a week, they don’t have to worry about other people judging them,” said DeLeon.

The Pride director is building a curriculum but also does HIV testing and community outreach for Links. She attends professional development seminars, which allow her to keep up with the latest developments on treatments, prevention and issues within the region. Much of her training on STIs and HIV has come from the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Center for Disease Control. DeLeon also served for five years on the Illinois HIV Prevention Community Planning Group and is part of Coalition Q, a group of LGBT youth providers that meet to share ideas and support each other. She has brought a wealth of outside learning outcomes into her job.

“I’ve found the best method [to educate] is to be frank and honest about risks that come with choices we make,” DeLeon said. “It’s important to have full knowledge and examples so that kids are aware of the consequences of their actions.”

Many of the Pride Youth members have become leaders in their schools and communities, and activists for LGBT rights. By participating in speaking panels, kids have made a difference by educating their heterosexual peers and sharing personal stories that help to give a face to the LGBT community. DeLeon loves being a confidant, friend, role model and guide for so many youths. Hearing thanks from them is always touching for her.

“When others talk about the impact I’m making, or they want to do what I do, it makes my heart smile,” she shared.

The trailblazer is always investigating new funding sources and ways to make Pride and Links known. The organization depends on grants and donations to keep the programs running. Donating money and volunteering time are ways to become involved in Links. Save the date for the organization’s Kentucky Derby-themed Spring Benefit on April 21, 2012, open to the public. Everyone can all help just by learning more about LGBT youth, spreading the knowledge and supporting local programs. Let more at www.linksyouth.org.