Co-Founder/Executive Director, Jennifer Young, accepts the 2023 Spirit of Matthew Award from the Matthew Shepard Foundation on behalf of the Be A Friend Project and its national network of student 'Upstanders' working to save the lives of bullied peers and build kinder communities. The award was presented by Dennis Shepard (Matt's dad) and Justin Nelson, President of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce at the Matthew Shepard Foundation's 25th Commemorative Gala in Denver on October 14th.
“The Spirit of Matthew Award recognizes a young person or organization that embodies the spirit of Matt – kind, forward-thinking, and advocating for their peers. These are youth who demonstrate a profound personal commitment to social justice, equal rights, and activism, while showing the same passion to foster a more caring and just world. . . just like Matt.”
On October 7, 1998, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was brutally attacked and tied to a fence in a field outside of Laramie, Wyoming and left to die. In the aftermath of Matt’s death, his parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, started the Matthew Shepard Foundation to honor his life and aspirations, and work tirelessly to erase hate and ensure safety, visibility, and inclusiveness for the entire LGBTQ+ community. The Foundation helped pioneer the country’s first federal hate crimes legislation with the passing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009.
Their annual gala honors Matt’s legacy and 2023 marks the 25th year of his murder in one of our country's most notorious anti-gay hate crime. This year’s commemorative event celebrated Making a Difference Award Honoree, Billy Porter; Dennis Dougherty Award for Community Leadership Honoree, Chasten Buttigieg; and Spirit of Matthew Award Honoree, Be A Friend Project.
PRESENTATION OF AWARD AND ACCEPTANCE SPEECH
~ TEXT OF JENNIFER YOUNG'S ACCEPTANCE SPEECH ~
"There’s no greater honor for me than to be here, “folded in” by Judy and Dennis, whom I revere, representing the Be A Friend Project, which is my heart, and accepting this award on behalf of the hundreds of student ‘Upstanders’ who are receiving this honor because they have shown themselves to embody what Matthew stood for in his life... I just don’t know what to do with so much PRIDE and HOPE.
Usually when I speak about the mission of the BAFP, I go into the statistics surrounding bullying because I want to open people’s eyes that such purposeful cruelty is never “just kids being kids...” The most heartbreaking of those stats being that on average 6 children every day in the USA are dying by suicide related to bullying ... and that bullying is a factor in most school shootings.
But this is one audience where I don’t need to focus on the statistics - or point out that LGBTQ+ kids face a heartbreaking and disproportionate percentage of that bullying. No one here needs their eyes opened to what hate can do.
I want to talk about what kindness can do! About our Upstanders who have earned this award ... They truly are the “boots on the ground.” Because we all know bullying happens most where adults are not, and that the best way to stop a bully is for a member of their friend group to tell them to stop. So, my passion - and that of our parents and educator ambassadors across the country - is to make sure the student throwing kindness in the game of life, gets the same fanfare and frontline support as the high school Quarterback throwing a touchdown at the homecoming game.
The Spirit of Matthew Award is helping us do that... ALREADY ... it has opened doors of support for these upstander kids and their personal missions to create “a more caring and just world.”
For a student involved in our organization, we provide kindness initiatives such as our school and community-based Kindness Clubs and our signature Friend Mail Program that delivers peer support (from kids in kindergarten through college) to bullied kids across the country to help them stay strong and know they are not alone. The beauty of that program, is that for every ONE bullied child we feature, there’s about 2,000 of their peers getting the chance to practice empathy – the greater a child’s capacity to empathize, the least likely they are to bully.
The PINNACLE role at the Project for a student is to be peer-selected to join the national Teen Kindness Board, which helps to guide our programming and gives a place of belonging for like-minded teens to exchange ideas. Selection is based on ongoing SELF-motivated acts of kindness and Bullying Prevention Activism in their communities.
I’m thrilled to say 3 of the currently 14 active members of the TKB are here tonight! Stand up you guys! This honor is for you!
Kimmie Edge is 19 and in her 2nd year at Rutgers University.
Monika Piehler is 14 and a 9th Grader from NY.
Brad Lancaster is 16, he’s an Eagle Scout from Amarillo, Texas.
If you really want to get inspired, you can read their “kindness stats” on our website.
I also want to acknowledge the first and so far only CHAIR of our Teen Kindness Board because I am pretty sure he is here, too. One of the first things people say about Aidan Duver aside from his being kind and a talented performer, is that he was a talker, he loved shooting the breeze with people - apparently, a lot like Matthew.
Aidan passed away on May 24th after a 2-year battle with cancer. He was 18. His mom Amy is my guest here tonight. 3 weeks before Aidan died, he recorded for me what he wanted people to know about this organization he helped to guide – and still does...
One thing he said he wanted audiences to take away....is that "this organization isn’t just a bunch of adults running around, making their kids send support to victims of bullying." (I try not to run around as much as possible...) and I quote him, he said, It’s about PEER SUPPORT. It’s about KIDS FOR KIDS - for teaching empathy and kindness – and just how to make the world a little bit brighter.”
When Aidan was elected to be the Teen Board’s CHAIR, he told me “it made his life.” I know he felt the same about speaking and performing at the NGLCC’s anniversary dinner in DC last November where we got to meet Judy and Dennis. And he felt the same too when he learned about the “Spirit of Matthew” Award, because you choosing us, meant his lifetime passion and purpose had made an impact.
I have this vision of the spirits of Aidan and Matthew tonight chatting up a storm together in some celestial skybox, sharing thoughts on the event - and being so proud of their parents.
I have so much more to tell you about these KIDS but to avoid having a big hook come out and drag me off stage... so, I want to end with a reflection from a Student Impact Survey we implemented last year at a school in New York where participation in the Friend Mail Program is schoolwide and monthly - and has been since 2017. We asked the elementary students to share their thoughts on being an Ambassador after an entire school year.
A 4th grader named Audrey Schwartz wrote... “I love it because you can make someone’s day and show them love. If they see enough love, the hate will cease.” A 4th Grader... “If they see enough love, the hate will cease.”
Judy and Dennis, you are the love they are seeing. All of you at the Matthew Shepard Foundation and here tonight, are the love they are seeing. I am so grateful for your visibility and for never giving up. This Award is the most powerful validation to our Upstanders that they have been seen - and that they too, are the love that will stop the hate. Thank you!"
MOST IMPORTANT MOMENT OF THE GALA
The most important moment of the Matthew Shepard Foundation 25th Commemorative Gala was when the BAFP youth got to meet Judy Shepard, Matthew's mom and founder of the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
The validation of this honor itself, along with supporting the work of the MSF and other Honorees Billy Porter (Making A Difference Award) and Chasten Buttigieg (Dennis Dougherty Award) was a lifetime privilege, but for our teen Upstanders to meet Judy, a national treasure as an of icon of resilience, love and acceptance, was a true gift.
They learned Matthew Shepard is not just a story of the nation's most notorious anti-gay hate crime, but that he was "just a kid" like them - a son and a brother and a friend... because this is "just his mom" who along with his dad, Dennis, in the face of tragedy, have become powerful and brilliant role models for our youths working to end hate by elevating kindness, and for all of us at the BAFP.
MEMORIES OF A LIFETIME IN PICTURES
I am forever grateful for the opportunities and care given to us by Judy, Dennis and the Matthew Shepard Foundation staff.
The validation of receiving the Spirit of Matthew Award - that honor itself - along with supporting the work of the MSF and other Honorees Billy Porter (Making A Difference Award) and Chasten Buttigieg (Dennis Dougherty Award) was a lifetime privilege.
BAFP Teen Kindness Board members in attendance were Kimberly Edge (19) a 2022 graduate of Haldane High School in Cold Spring NY (currently excelling at Rutgers University NJ), Brad Lancaster (16) of West Plains High School in Amarillo TX, and Monika Piehler (14) of Arlington High School in Pleasant Valley NY. Also joining the BAFP Friend Strong crew in Denver were Michelle Lancaster (Super Ambassador Educator and 2020 Unsung Hero of the Year Award Winner) from Amarillo, TX, Heather Pinieri and Amy Duver (BAFP Staff) and Shante Skyers (Board Director), all of New York. Thank you to chaperones and companions, Sara Piehler, Kevin Lancaster, Nia Induashvili and Marc Pinieri.
Here are just a few pictures and video to re-cap the incredible weekend in Denver with the Matthew Shepard Foundation. Professional photos still to come!
Press Release for downloading: