Andre Grace doesn’t agree with the suicide-prevention campaign "It Gets Better," which tries to reassure gay youths that the bullying they endure at school will eventually end. But then, Grace doesn’t want to wait that long.
"I take a different slogan," said Grace. "I like to say, ‘Make it better right now.’ "
The professor and longtime advocate for gay rights wants gay youths to know that caring adults are willing to help and that teens should not put up with bullying.
Now Grace and his University of Alberta colleague Kristopher Wells want to bring a groundbreaking summer camp for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered youths to Calgary.
The pair launched Camp fYrefly in Edmonton almost eight years ago with the aim of creating a supportive environment for sexual and gender minority youths.
Wells points to a suicide rate among homosexual teens in Canada which is anywhere from three to 10 times that of their heterosexual peers.
Mental health issues, eating disorders, depression and drug abuse are also more common among these youths, said Grace.
"All of these are consequences of being young and basically trying to survive (the) challenges of coming out to family or being at school, where difference is always hard," said Grace.
Increasing demand from Calgarians for spots at the camp encouraged fYrefly organizers to make the trip south.
"(FYrefly) receives applicants from all over the province," said Grace, "but there is a heavy concentration from Calgary and southern Alberta.
"We don’t want to ever turn youth away when they need (a) safe, caring, healthy space."
One Calgarian who made the trip to Edmonton for camp last summer is 15-year-old Elise Hessel.
"I’m gay," said Elise, "and I figured it out more or less at the end of Grade 8."
Articulate and soft-spoken, Elise recalls the difficult time two years ago when she started to realize that she might be different from most of her friends.
"Things were a bit confusing," said Elise. "I remember just being really confused as to why my friends were always talking about boys."
At first, Elise said she was afraid of how her friends might react. "I was scared of people reacting badly," said Elise. "I didn’t want to lose any friends over this."
With two gay uncles in the family, Elise said she knew that she would receive support at home, but making friends who understood what she was going through was also important.
At fYrefly, Elise met new friends and had the rare experience of being in the majority for the first time in her life.
"You can just kind of be yourself for a few days," said Elise. "And you can be proud of who you are and not afraid of people judging you."
Teens who attend Camp fYrefly gain confidence from being surrounded by peers and learn the skills and resiliency necessary to thrive once they return home, said Wells.
"What we’re developing is a community," said Wells, "because it is the isolation and alienation that do the most harm."