When the U.S. shut down because of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, social service organizations were left scrambling to figure out how to serve their clientele in the face of lockdowns and long-term social distancing. At ALSO Youth, which serves LGTBQ youth in Sarasota and Manatee counties, no one felt that more acutely than board chair Mary Tavarozzi.
“LGBTQ youth are at higher risk of self-harm than the general teenage population,” says Tavarozzi, a former finance executive and longtime LGBTQ advocate. “For many of our youth, dropping into the center once or twice a week was their main social activity outside of school.”
She got to work, starting online groups that included book clubs, virtual art projects and movie nights to make sure there wasn’t a gap in ALSO’s programming. “Some weeks, we’d only get one youth popping in [to a session], but at least there was someone for them to talk to,” Tavarozzi says.
The organization also had just completed a merger with another LGBTQ youth group, Bradenton’s Prism Youth Alternatives. Tavarozzi stepped in as interim executive director while retaining her board responsibilities—leading fund-raising groups, actively planning events and spending countless hours at ALSO Youth’s brick-and-mortar drop-in centers as they slowly reopened and the organization restaffed.
“Quite simply, if Mary hadn’t been there, the organization would have had to shut down,” says Mickey Stone, ALSO’s current executive director, who was hired in June.
ALSO Youth’s Sarasota center is now open four times per week, and its Bradenton center—previously open just one time per month—is now open at least once a week. Annual events, like the popular LGBTQ prom, are back on the calendar, and Tavarozzi says ALSO is significantly expanding its programming to include topics like wellness, career and education.
“There wasn’t anything like this for kids when I was growing up,” Tavarozzi says. “When I moved here, I wanted to make sure Florida youth didn’t become a statistic in terms of self-harm or addiction or homelessness. I didn’t want them to feel like they had to get out of high school and leave—I want them to know they can live life out and proud here.”