Sheffield School Club Aims for LGBTQ Acceptance

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LGBTQ support club
Sheffield SMILE Club members Chelsea Burkett, Olivia Zawacki, Lisa Keesler, Carrie Warner, Heidi Colosimo, Neira Laird, Abby Krueger, Carter Lookenhouse, Cayla McMillen, Sarah Korchak, and Sarah Connolly show their support for LGBTQ+ community members. Photo submitted.

SHEFFIELD, Pa. – While most were focused on dealing with the pandemic during the 2020-21 school year, a trio of Sheffield students decided to turn their attention to a different social issue.

Abby Krueger, Neira Laird and Carter Lookenhouse wanted to create a safe and friendly place for LGBTQ+ community members, straight allies and other students in need. They received permission from SAMHS Principal Glenn Smith and, with the support of music teacher Sarah Korchak, formed Sheffield SMILE (Students Making Inclusion Look Effortless).

“I want to make a safe place for my peers in our school,” Krueger said. “I want everyone to feel safe even if they aren’t part of the LGBTQ+ community. We deserve a place where we feel accepted for who we are.”

Students form LGBTQ support club
Sheffield SMILE Club founders Carter Lookenhouse, Neira Laird and Abby Krueger at Warren County Pride Day. With permission from DSJ Photography.

Sheffield SMILE began with 8-10 students eating lunch in the music room, where they defined a purpose for the club and created informational bulletin boards to raise awareness of the club and educate peers. Club members pledged to continue their support on the last day of the school year (photo at top) and even took their message to Warren County Pride Day.

In short, they want their LGBTQ+ friends and peers to know they have someone to turn to if they need it.

“Every LGBTQ+ adult I know was sure of their identity during adolescence, but most lived in shame and secrecy before going public,” Korchak said. “Some turned to alcohol and drugs for escape while others attempted suicide. I want to spare our children from the dangers of rejection.”

Korchak, who retired at the end of the year but plans to continue volunteering for the club, explained that LGBTQ+ adolescents can often feel isolated, rejected or bullied by their peers. Sheffield SMILE hopes to promote positive interactions among all students through respect, understanding and education.

According to youth.gov, a U.S. government website focused on strengthening youth programs, LGBTQ+ youth who experience harassment or bullying at school were more likely to drop out of school; have higher absenteeism; have lower postsecondary education aspirations; have higher levels of depression and anxiety, and have lower self-esteem.

While those rejected by their families were more than eight times as likely to attempt suicide; almost six times as likely to report high levels of depression; more than three times as likely to use illegal drugs; and more than three times as likely to be at high risk for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases.

“The realities of life among LGBTQ+ out and questioning youth is often heartbreaking,” Korchak said. “Self-harm occurs at a staggering rate as these children often struggle alone, afraid to talk to family and friends about their feelings. Research shows that acceptance by even one trusted family member, friend, or respected adult can be life-saving. At SAMHS, we have identified several students and staff members willing to have those difficult, often awkward conversations.”

When school begins Tuesday, Aug. 31, Sheffield SMILE will hold informational meetings for students, families and allies in the community, while continuing the high school lunch club with Sarah Connolly.

In the meantime, Korchak has created a Facebook group, The Hard MILE as a local support group and informational resource for those in the LGBTQ+ and allies.