JASMYN, the only LGBTQ+ center in Northeast Florida, celebrates its 26th birthday this year. In 1993, Ernie Selorio Jr., an LGBTQ+ teenager, was new to Jacksonville and feeling isolated—even suicidal—in his new surroundings. He and his sister decided to start a support group at Willowbranch Library to allow other young people experiencing the same feelings to come together and support one another. The group went from an idea to a remarkable reality that is JASMYN today. The organization is now headquartered in a Brooklyn campus comprising three large houses in which health services, housing support and student opportunities are available to LGBTQ+ youth, especially those experiencing homelessness. It is a community filled with like-minded people, love and support: a safe space to marshal mental and physical health.
JASMYN stands for Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network, and it focuses on the general well-being of young people’s lives. One aspect of that is sexual health and HIV testing, treatment and counseling. The organization hosts weekly clinics, workshops, informational sessions and support groups. The clinics offer young people resources, medication and support from other young people HIV+ as well as those who are not. They approach problems using these resources and also offer preventative measures with PrEP, or “pre-exposure prophylaxis,” a medication for high-risk individuals to take daily to prevent getting HIV.
Jacksonville consistently ranks high in national HIV+ indexes, so the directors of JASMYN feel “a responsibility to connect with young people and help them make positive and appropriate healthcare links … We empower them to take control of their care,” Christina Woodhouse, JASMYN’s assistant director of health services, told Folio.
The goal is to help these young people get themselves in a stable position. Jupitar Adams, a young person who was introduced to JASMYN 10 years ago, told Folio, “I can remember how comfortable everything was. It was like a home away from home.” Adams has stayed home ever since. They continue working closely with JASMYN, coordinating events and interacting with the young people with whom they relate.
JASMYN not only works to create a safe learning environment for LGBTQ+ young people, but the organization also helps their parents. “Children come out to their parents and family, and the family does not know what to do. That’s where JASMYN comes in,” CEO Cindy Watson explained. JASMYN holds quarterly parent/child support sessions in which children meet in one building and parents meet in another. Each group discusses experiences, approaches and adjustment techniques in the new dynamic of their home. Sharing with people who are experiencing similar situations helps everyone.
Some 60 percent of the homeless young adults in Jacksonville identify as LGBTQ+, so it’s safe to say that JASMYN is in the right place, doing the right work at the right time. One of JASMYN’s flagship events is Youth Prom, an annual happening held in May for LGBTQ+ youth and their parents. There is a “parent room” at the event where the elders can hang out with each other and continue the discourse of community and family. Another event is the Formation Ball, held every December. The shindig is modeled after the television show Pose and features a parade of “houses” created by young people who have been thrown out of their own homes. Each house has a “mother” or “father,” and they compete every year to decide who is the most “fem” of them all (who can display the most effeminate qualities).
There is also an annual student retreat weekend that focuses on social justice issues and leadership development. ACCESS, which stands for Accessing Client Centered Essential Support Services, is a valuable program that allows homeless young people time at the house to do their laundry, take a shower, have a hot meal, and hang out with members of their community. It also allows them time on a computer to look for jobs or gain access to other resources that may not be available to them elsewhere. The Healthy Relationships Retreat is hosted for young people who tested positive for HIV, and it allows them the opportunity to discuss their options and experiences as well as gain support and opportunities for the future. Not only does JASMYN provide an abundance of community and group support, it also offers private counseling for young people. This is extremely important, considering how difficult it is to find a private counselor on your own, especially when you’re experiencing homelessness.
JASMYN is not only health-centered, but it is first and foremost youth-centered. “We have a youth-centric approach,” Watson said. “We meet them where they are and focus on their empowerment.”
Adams, the alumnus who remains at JASMYN as a youth counselor and coordinator, added, “The staff is unlike any other. You just feel the vibration that resonates with the youth. I’m not just another number; they make me feel like an individual—heard and loved.”
This truly seems to be a shared feeling on the JASMYN campus, and the organization has become an important part of these young peoples’ lives. They have built a community there, and JASMYN continues to grow. The campus’ newest building will offer shower suites, with the ability to do laundry, grab a hot meal, phone service and internet access. The facility will be equipped with the necessary tools and other resources to help youths find a job and benefit from a stable environment—a place to call home.
As JASMYN grows, so does demand for its services. Yes, the community has made strides on the path of inclusivity, but we still have a long way to go. JASMYN continues to build community partnerships, making the campus—and Jacksonville—an even safer place. It plans to expand and build outside of the campus to create a meditation garden and more space for outdoor gatherings and events.
“Until recently, the community was not ready to support the work we do here. We have seen that change in the last six years or so,” Watson said. “We expect the community and large city of Jacksonville to step up and respond to the challenge of homelessness.”
JASMYN offers more than housing, healthcare and developmental opportunities for these young people; it offers a safe space to come and share memories and experiences. JASMYN is a powerhouse of visionaries who are working together to shape the lives of young people through empowerment, community and, most remarkably, love.