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LGBTQ teens leave COVID-19 isolation to connect at St. Petersburg summer camp

During one week-long session, 22 campers ages 13-17 enjoyed hanging out with people like them and building self-confidence without worrying about explaining themselves.
Teens started slowly then warmed up to an energetic bucket-drumming session, a way to get them working together during a week-long LGBTQ+ camp at Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg.
Teens started slowly then warmed up to an energetic bucket-drumming session, a way to get them working together during a week-long LGBTQ+ camp at Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]
Published Jul. 19
Updated Jul. 19

ST. PETERSBURG — Alvon Griffin started playing slowly, banging out the beat with purple drumsticks on the bottom of a True Value paint bucket.

Boom, clang, clang, clang, clang, clang, clang, boom, clang, boom ...

Inside a church sanctuary with pride flags hanging from the walls, a circle of teens watched. A few had short, dyed hair and black jean jackets. Some wore pins, pride bracelets or flower crowns. Many had played instruments before, maybe the ukulele or kazoo.

But this was new, like so much they were encountering at the Metro Inclusive Health 2021 LGBTQ+ Youth Summer Camp. The 22 campers, ages 13-17, were still getting to know one another, still hesitant.

Believed to be the only camp in the Tampa Bay area created for LGBTQ teens, the weeklong session brings together those with shared experiences. They can build self-confidence in a place where they need not worry about explaining the pronouns they use each time they meet someone new, said Margot Ash, camp director.

And it’s a way to open up and move beyond the isolation of the past year, spent at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They can safely connect with each other and find people like them,” Ash said.

She brought in Griffin to help the process. But at this point, early in the camp, the teens didn’t know that yet.

Alvon Griffin leads a bucket-drumming session at the Metro Inclusive Health 2021 LGBTQ+ Youth Summer Camp.
Alvon Griffin leads a bucket-drumming session at the Metro Inclusive Health 2021 LGBTQ+ Youth Summer Camp. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

Dreads streaming down his back from beneath a backwards cap, Griffin wrote out a 16-beat pattern on a whiteboard and demonstrated how to count it. On beats one, eight and 10, hit the center of the drum for a loud bass sound. On beats five and 13, hit the outside rim hard for an accent. For every other beat, the normal ones, hit the outside rim.

His audience sat slouched over at first, their blank faces seeming to ask, “What are we even doing, anyway?”

Then Griffin started playing faster, with more energy. He bopped to his own rhythm.

Boom, clang, clang, clang …

The teens sat up like rockets, their eyes engaged. They started, ever so slightly, to dance in their chairs as Griffin pounded, faster and faster.

Now, they all wanted their own drum. Griffin had a pyramid of buckets at the front of the room and handed one to each camper.

“Everything you do is important because it adds to that sound,” he told them.

Alyssa Dawson, 14, was among the first to grab a bucket. She played nervously, slowly.

Boom, clang, clang ...

Alyssa is transgender. She began making her transition in November and was in virtual school all of last year, but anytime she left the house, Alyssa and her mom Jennifer discussed which bathroom she might use.

Many campers have similar concerns. Some said they worry about people following them in or fear judgment from others.

Max Gastelum, 17, welcomed the chance to attend a camp in St. Petersburg for LGBTQ teens. “It’s nice not having to be scared,” Gastelum said.
Max Gastelum, 17, welcomed the chance to attend a camp in St. Petersburg for LGBTQ teens. “It’s nice not having to be scared,” Gastelum said. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

Max Gastelum, 17, who is also transgender, said he normally texts family members while in the bathroom so they know he’s okay.

Here at camp, he has nothing to worry about. There is one bathroom for all genders.

“It’s nice not having to be scared,” Gastelum said. “Not to be hate-crimed because of my bladder.”

Metro Inclusive Health runs the week-long sessions at Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg. Metro Inclusive Health is a St. Petersburg nonprofit that provides health and wellness services to the LGBTQ community. Allendale is a church built on acceptance of all, in an age where some churches cite religious grounds in rejecting people in the LGBTQ community.

“Your silence is violence” reads one banner in the front of the sanctuary. “Speak up for Black lives,” reads another.

Teens attending an LGBTQ camp had the run of their host site, the Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg.
Teens attending an LGBTQ camp had the run of their host site, the Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

Now in its sixth summer, and its first with Ash as director, the camp was created to expand Metro Inclusive Health’s youth programs beyond weekly night sessions. The hope was that friendships would form with more time spent together.

Activities and guest performers help energize the camp.

Campers led their own 30-minute conversation about respect and boundaries, Ash said. Her goal was for them to build confidence and strength for life outside of the church’s walls.

A camper who goes by the name Cupid, 15, said one day was spent learning martial arts, how to use elbows for defense and evade a punch. They weren’t starting a quest for a black belt but how to defend against a world that might not always accept them.

Gastelum found the camp through a therapist at Metro Inclusive Health. He said it’s nice to hang out with people without fear of being called a slur. Many campers had never before met other LGBTQ people of their age.

Cupid, 15, dressed all in pink, said one day was spent learning martial arts. It wasn't so much the start of a quest for a black belt as it was learning skills to defend against a world that might not always accept them.
Cupid, 15, dressed all in pink, said one day was spent learning martial arts. It wasn't so much the start of a quest for a black belt as it was learning skills to defend against a world that might not always accept them. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

Excitement has grown among the campers at enjoying simple human interaction again, and in an accepting place.

But in some cases, like with Alyssa’s mother Jennifer Dawson, their loved ones still are nervous.

“That’s a little scary for me as her parent,” Dawson said. “But she’s fearless.”

clang ...

Alyssa stopped drumming. She’d gotten it wrong. Griffin asked her if she wanted to try again. She didn’t.

The drums just weren’t for her. She had already found something else interesting to do, sitting in the circle and drawing in her notebook. That’s her passion.

She’s been drawing a story about Chester, a part-cyborg character she created. Chester’s world will have spiders and dragons and demogorgons.

She proudly showed her drawings to the other campers.

Meantime, Scottie Brittain, 17, took a turn at drumming.

“Don’t look at me,” Brittain told everyone.

Griffin dutifully turned away.

Boom, clang, clang, clang, clang, clang, clang, boom, clang, boom, clang...

Scottie had it down, as smooth as Griffin.

“It’s a good thing I didn’t see that,” Griffin said with a laugh, turning back to look.

He passed out more buckets. One by one, each camper performed to applause. Some helped one another.

Slowly, teens drifted away into the lobby to draw or relax. Some didn’t like the loud noise.

With just a handful left, Griffin had them play together as a team. The 16-beat rhythm reverberated off the church’s high ceiling, perfectly in sync.

“Uh oh,” he hollered, “we got musicians in the house.”

Teens take part in an energetic bucket-drumming session, a way to get them working together during a week-long camp at Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg.
Teens take part in an energetic bucket-drumming session, a way to get them working together during a week-long camp at Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]