As another school year comes to a close, the youth of Roselle Park grew another season through their achievements and the challenges they faced. Sometimes those challenges go beyond school walls and during such an important time in their growth into adulthood, they need to know they are not alone in the questions they ask about themselves and others.
In the Roselle Park School District (RPSD), at the end of March – just around the time elected officials were debating who could use what bathroom and before a man in Orlando walked into the lives of over 100 people for no other reason than to try and kill them – a small group of students held a little get-together in an effort to help others be comfortable with who they are and extend an open invitation to everyone so they can interact.
The Gay-Straight Alliance, or GSA, held a Spring Fling on March 24th at the Roselle Park High School (RPHS) and over 100 teens showed up. A diverse group of students of all backgrounds and cultures which included members of GSA, athletes, thespians, academics, cliques, and loners came together to have a good time and eat.
RPHS Senior Shayna said, “It was a very safe environment to have fun and everyone was included. No group or person was left out.”
Another 12th grader, Shamar, simply said, “I’m so glad that I went to the party! It was lit.”
Although there as a support for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning) students, GSA also advocates for support and communication from the broader Roselle Park community.
As GSA advisor Tiffany Bain stated, “Having a Gay Straight Alliance means that our school is an inclusive one, thereby strengthening the school community. It also makes it easier to identify supportive staff and students to create a safe environment for LGBTQ students.”
One of the sponsors was Roselle Park 24/7, an initiative program started by former Roselle Park Mayor Joseph DeIorio and his husband, current Fifth Ward Councilman, Thomas ‘Thos’ Shipley. Mr. DeIorio himself was once an RPHS student and became the town’s leader for 16 years. Until a couple of years ago, Mr. DeIorio would never publicly discuss his own sexuality. One of Roselle Park’s favorite sons was well-liked and popular but kept his private life private. Some knew, others suspected, and still others threatened to use it against him politically. That changed when, in September of 2013, his marriage to Thos was in the New York Times.
Then everyone knew.
Now, Joe sees a generation coming up with such progress but also with its own sets of challenges. He realizes that there is still pressure to ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ but he is proud that there there are groups, like GSA, that offer support to be proud, to learn about one’s self, and to be yourself. Sam Lipke, a 12th grader, agreed, “GSA makes it safe for people to be themselves.”
As a way of connection to his past with the present and future, the date of the Spring Fling, was the anniversary of Joe and Thos’ first date eight years ago.
“It was a wonderful night. We had a great turnout in a safe space,” said Andrea Kozodoy, GSA co-advisor, “The message to our LGBTQ students and their allies is that there is support amongst their peers and community in Roselle Park. This event could not have happened without the support of our administrators, 24/7, the donors and volunteers.”
Tiffany Bain added, “I felt so much pride being part of such a supportive and caring community here in Roselle Park. I cannot express how much gratitude I have for the donors and RP 24/7 who made this event possible. What an amazing gift for our students to an evening of fun and be who they are in a supportive environment.”
So, in spite of the suffering that occurred in Orlando, a small group of young people – without knowing the full impact of what they did in March – might have found the answer to such violence. Their spring fling gave a place for people to say this is who I am, and showed everyone this is who we are as a community. This is what Roselle Park is – a place where everyone can come together.
As for what the future holds, 11th grader Imani summed it up, “I can’t wait to do it next year.”