Gay Miami teen gets accolades for inspiring peers
December 30 2004 1:00 AM ET
Two years ago, at age 15 and living in his 15th Miami-area foster home, Steven Alicea came out of the closet. His foster parents at the time, both pastors, said he would go to hell. "I thought of suicide--just taking my life. That it was worthless," Steven says. "Thank God I didn't."
Today, instead of wanting to end his life, Steven is beginning to live it. He's in a stable home with two loving foster mothers. He plans to study dance at Florida International University. This holiday season he is celebrating two honors: a national courage award and a local "Do the Right Thing" community service award that includes a prize trip to London. "I was shocked," Steven says. "It's an encouragement for me to continue doing what I'm doing. To help people and continue helping myself."
When he was 7 months old Steven moved with his mother from Puerto Rico to Miami's Wynwood neighborhood. Later, she and an abusive spouse got involved with drugs. The state eventually put Steven and his younger brother and sister into foster care. In his 17 years Steven has lived in 17 foster homes, group homes, and shelters--some of them physically and emotionally abusive environments, he said. "Being in the foster-care system really sucks, especially for a young child," he says. "It's hard to move into other people's homes.... It's hard to not be with your loved ones and be with someone who is being paid for it. Being gay makes it worse."
When he told his foster parents he is gay, they reacted with disbelief. "If I liked a guy, I was told I was going to hell, that you're not supposed to like boys, that it's wrong," he says. "I've been baptized I don't know how many times trying to please my foster parents. It never helped, obviously." He "felt horrible," often skipped school, and thought of killing himself. Gays account for 30% of all teen suicides, 28% of all dropouts, and 40% of homeless teens, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Steven found solace at gay-oriented Pridelines Youth Services near downtown Miami, where he became close to the group's executive director, Denise Hueso. "She was very cool and down-to-earth," Steven says. "I started spending a lot of time at Pridelines, doing a lot of community service. That was the turning point of my life." Hueso and her partner, Sandra Newson, wanted children, and they decided to
become Steven's foster parents. Florida prohibits gays and lesbians from adopting but not from becoming foster parents. "We talked about it for months," Hueso says. "We talked to a lot of people and then said, 'What the hell, we're going to do it."'
In February 2003, Steven moved into their home in Little Gables. "Now he's got two people who care a lot about him. He calls them his moms," says Michael Guthrie, program director at the School for Applied Technology in northeast Miami, a dropout prevention academy where Steven is a senior with a B
grade average. He no longer cuts school.
"With a little effort on our part, we've had so much impact on his life," says Newson, 40, a social worker who is being treated for breast cancer. "Yes, our schedule has changed, and we don't have the extra bedroom, and there are kids in our house when we don't want them to be. "[But] having Steven at home put some structure in our lives. It has taught me so much about how I communicated, how I see things."
Hueso, 38, recently left Pridelines after four years to become a social worker at Charlee Homes for Children in Coral Gables. "The hardest part for us, for Sandra and I to learn, is that this is a kid who survived all his life without us and did a pretty good job," Hueso says. "We can offer him our life experience."
Steven works 24 hours a week at Care Resource, Florida's largest AIDS service agency. "I'm a peer educator to get people to get tested for HIV," he says. "I'm the youngest employee. They treat me with respect, like any regular coworker." He also counsels other gay teens at Pridelines. "I tell them I've been where you're at, and it's a horrible feeling; but we have to move on, that positive things are going to come, but you have to work at it."
Good things came twice last month. First, the national Colin Higgins Foundation honored Steven with its annual Courage Award after Newson nominated him. Higgins, who died of AIDS complications in 1988, was a writer-director of hit films including Foul Play and Nine to Five. "Steven epitomizes resilience and a willingness to speak out for traditionally underserved communities," the foundation's manager, Catalina Ruiz-Healy, said in a statement. "He has endured overwhelming hate and hostility, yet has handled himself with honor and grace as he educates and enlightens others." Steven received $5,000.
Then, Do the Right Thing--a program sponsored by the Miami Police Department, British Airways, The Miami Herald, and WTVJ-NBC 6--named Steven one of October's top 10 Miami-Dade County students. They cited him for raising his grades from F's to A's, his AIDS activism, and achieving "success despite adversity." "He impressed me ever since I met him," says Candy Hertsch, Steven's high school guidance counselor, who nominated him for Do the Right Thing. "He has drive, ambition, he's respectful and kind." (Steve Rothaus, The Miami Herald, via AP)