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Aqua Foundation scholarships help young lesbian, bisexual, transgender women succeed

BY STEVE ROTHAUS
srothaus@MiamiHerald.com

Nursing student Kim Carias worked two jobs putting herself through school at Florida International University. Three scholarships from Aqua Foundation for Women have enabled her to continue college, quit one job and volunteer time mentoring LGBT youths.

“Aqua Foundation has empowered me to be the leader I was meant to be,” said Carias, 20, who was born and raised in Miami-Dade County. “By supporting leaders of a community, the Aqua Foundation empowers a generation of change. On a personal level, the Aqua Foundation has allowed me to step away from my personal struggles and empowered me to lead.”

Aqua Foundation on Saturday presents Aqua Affair, a fundraiser for the organization’s scholarship fund. Since its inception a decade ago, the foundation has granted about $400,000 in scholarships, according to marketing manager Tommy Gomez.

Since 2013, Aqua has led an effort to raise $100,000 for a community LGBTQ youth homelessness initiative. It also awarded two-dozen $5,000 scholarships.

“The scholarships are important for a variety of reasons,” said Robin Schwartz, Aqua Foundation’s executive director, who is stepping down this fall after four years running the organization.

“First, the financial support often makes a difference between a woman going to school or not,” Schwartz said. “More important are the leadership aspects. We identify women who’ve already shown the potential to be leaders in the community. We foster those skills through the relationship they have with their mentors and the volunteering they do at Aqua, which is a requirement. This year we had a leadership conference that they attended, where they gained valuable skills from current women leaders in our community.”

This year’s scholarship is Carias’ third from Aqua Foundation. So far, the group has given the FIU junior $12,500.

“Oh, wow,” she says, reflecting on the total. “I'm so fortunate to have received this scholarship. I really am. They've given me so much.”

Carias said she came out to her mother just before she graduated in 2012 from Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High School in Northeast Miami-Dade.

“Right before prom, I wanted to tell her I was going to prom with my girlfriend,” Carias said. “She said she’d rather not live than have a daughter had that kind of lifestyle. When I came out to her, she didn’t speak to me for quite a while.”

Carias, who is Spanish-Honduran, said that growing up she knew nothing about her LGBT community.

“I did not know my cousin was gay. I was raised around him all my life and I had no idea. The word homosexuality was not mentioned at home,” she said. “When I had these feelings, being attracted to women, I didn’t even know what that meant.”

Even now, Carias’ mother does not want anyone else in the family to know she is a lesbian.

“But I know I’m strong enough to handle anything,” she said. “It’s who I am, and I’m proud of who I am.”

Carias, who transfers soon to Nova Southeastern University, spends much of her time volunteering for Safe Schools South Florida, an LGBT group of education professionals, youth service providers and gay-straight student alliances. She speaks on Safe Schools’ behalf in the mainstream community.

“A lot of my work with Safe Schools revolves around me telling my story,” Carias said. “You can tell them and give them all these facts, but it’s not until they hear the real story and see the pain in someone’s eyes that they’re able to change, change their hearts and change their minds and realize that whoever I love, it’s OK. They can embrace it and not condemn me for who I am.”

IF YOU GO

▪ What: Aqua Affair to benefit Aqua Foundation for Women

▪ When: 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 20

▪ Where: Gale South Beach, 1690 Collins Ave., Miami Beach

▪ Cost: $55 Aqua Foundation members, $75 nonmembers, $95 at door.

For tickets or more information, www.aquafoundation.org

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