Meet Beth Panilaitis, ROSMY’s ED and A Community Leader
One thing that almost every member of the LGBTQ community can relate to is the challenge of growing up not understanding who or what you are. I guess the same could be said for the straight community, but being young and a sexual minority poses even more complications, even in today’s connected world.
There is, however, at least one group here in RVA aimed at supporting kids during this challenging time– ROSMY. Though the group has existed since the 90’s, it has reached new heights under the guidance of it’s determined and committed Executive Director Beth Panilaitis.
I’m sitting across a table from Panilaitis at Northside’s Stir Crazy coffee shop. I’m eating a real scone – not one covered in sugar like you get at Starbucks. This is the same place I met Panilaitis for the first time back when I took over as editor with GayRVA.
Panilaitis took the wheel at ROSMY back in 2010, but the journey to this position was long and it isn’t the first time she found herself helping Richmond’s youth.
We start from the beginning; the Panilaitis farm in Watertown, Connecticut. There, Panilaitis grew up the youngest of three, with two older brothers. Her parents and the rest of her immediate family all lived on the same block. They all worked on the family farm, growing produce and running a roadside farm stand. Her family had the only apple press in the county, so every fall there would be a big cider making event at the Panilaitis home.
But she doesn’t pick apples anymore.
“People will ask me to go apple picking and it doesn’t have the charm for me,” she says with a laugh. “They used to be chores and things I had to do. So it doesn’t have nearly the charm for people who didn’t have to do it for work every day.”
Panilaitis attended public school until the 9th grade. When her folks noticed her lean toward scholastic excellence, though, they offered her the chance to attend an all girls boarding school. “
Panilaitis ended up going to the Westover School, where a wide range of topics and issues were stressed. While she excelled scholastically, she also picked up an eye for photography, a passion that would come back into her life before long.
Her parents supported her throughout the process. It was also about this time when she came out to her folks.
“I remember sitting in my room crying,” says Panilaitis. She asked her mom to sit down and she let it all spill out.
“Mom, I like girls… and I like one girl, and she has a girlfriend,” she said. It was hard for Panilaitis, but her mom said all the right things at the time.
But the next day, things got a bit harder, and it wasn’t long before her mom started in with so many of the classic “how do I handle my LGBTQ child” tropes. She’d point out boys walking down the street; she’d try and set young Panilaitis up on dates. A pair of lesbian coworkers with their own problems became even more fodder for the concerned and confused mother. “It’s too bad lesbians have to be drug addicts…” she’d says.
The topic wasn’t discussed very often for a while. Like many kids in their late teens, her relationship with her mother was strained But before she left for college, she took her mother out for a drive and laid everything on the table.
“I’m not coming back if this is what it’s going to be like,” she told her mom, who, for the first time, spoke about her concerns in a real way.
It was the 90’s – violence against LGBTQ people was making headlines nationwide and it was something every parent thought of. “She wanted my life to be as easy as possible,” Panilaitis says now. And, as we all know, being a lesbian doesn’t make things any easier.
But after this conversation things changed for momma Panilaitis. “I think she went to every PFLAG meeting in Connecticut,” Panilaitis jokes.
When she came out to her father, it went a little more smoothly. On a car trip to an Episcopal youth ministry event, she echoed the same phrase she said to her mother a year prior. “Dad, I like girls,” she said. “So do I,” he said.
He thought it was a phase – again, a feeling many parents of LGBTQ teens experience. But they worked through things as best as they could. Panilaitis knew her father had come to full terms with her sexuality when they attended the national Episcopal General Convention towards the end of her high school career. A vote had come up which would have lead the church to bless same-sex unions. When it failed, her father walked over wearing a big rainbow “Integrity” shirt (a symbol of LGBTQ Episcopalians) and said “We’ll get there someday, sweetie.”
“Spike’s pretty awesome,” Panilaitis tells me as I wipe a tear from my eye. Yes, her dad’s name is Spike.
She spent her first year in college in Amherst, MA, but the program there lacked the structure she had in high school. “It was a very creative way of learning, with no tests and no grades, and self-designed majors – I learned how to learn,” she says. “it was great to be able to do that, and I loved my time there, but I’m too much of a pragmatist.”
The idea of a self-made major appealed to her at first – she had dreams of driving around the country interviewing people and taking photographs of them, and releasing a book. It sounded neat on paper, but wasn’t quite realistic and knew she needed to transfer.
She looked at a number of social work programs and VCU’s stood out among the rest. She had some friends in Richmond too, but the idea of leaving New England for what she considered “the big city” played a part in her choice as well.
“Being in the south, and in a city, in a totally different environment and climate, I thought it would be great for my education, and addressing social issues,” she said. “If I was going to practice social work and look at social problems, being in a city is better for that than a little town.”
Richmond’s link to the past also influenced her choice. “You have so much of the country’s history in CT and MA… and in VA. I’ve always loved living in a place where you could live among that history and be connected to it. “
She transferred to VCU in 2002 and started in the social work program. Richmond’s tag as one of the most dangerous cities in the country was still fresh in many people’s minds, and this girl from small town CT had to learn a few things when she made the big move.
“It was the first time in my life where I had to lock my doors,” she said. Her roommate at the time had to explain this concept to her. “It wasn’t a tough adjustment, but at that point I was a little new-girl-in-a-big-city.”
She thought she’d finish the program and end up going into therapy work, but her first internship at the Powhatan Correctional Center changed that.
Working in their mental health treatment center, Panilaitis was exposed to some pretty scary sides of the justice system. But she was determined to make a difference, and when she was brought on she was the first undergraduate social work intern the medium-security facility ever had.
“I wanted to challenge myself,” she said. “If I were to totally live into social work values, and [my] values as a Christian, I knew I had to work in a place that would challenge those values.”
While she witnessed some pretty awful things, she said it was the system itself that shocked her the most. “I saw how broken the system was, and I realized I needed to be on the other side to fix the system, as opposed to being inside it.”
This lead to her second internship, working with at-risk youth, doing in-home and school visits. While not her first time working with young people – she helped organized the Episcopal campus ministry at VCU but considered it more peer-to-peer work – it would be the first time she worked with children in crisis.
“There’s such an importance of working with youth, especially youth who don’t have resources or a chance, and there needs to be that extra intervention,” she says.
One particular youth has stayed with her to this day – a boy requiring a home visit. While she’d certainly never speculate as to a child’s sexuality, Panilaitis said she saw indicators. The homophobic environment the child was living in, the parents unabashed anti-gay language, was bad enough that she spoke to her supervisor about it. “He’s one of those kids where I wonder where he is now…”
After graduating from VCU, Panilaitis took a break and spent 3 months driving cross-country. She camped, spent time with relatives in South Dakota, and picked up work when she could. It was just her and the road. But before long a family emergency put the brakes on her national exploration.
She moved back home to help with her brother, a motorcycle cop who’d just lost a leg in an accident. Always in good humor, he wasn’t afraid to joke about his false limb. When he got in another motorcycle accident years later he told his family everything was fine, because he’d fallen on the fake leg.
Panilaitis’s return home didn’t stop her from pursuing her social work goals. She entered a fast-paced masters program near her home and spent a year taking on cases in a supportive housing program while helping her brother. “It was like bootcamp for social work,” she says.
When the program ended, she was faced with a number of choices. Her brother was well on his way to recovery, and her intense masters program had made her ready for anything.
Her job search brought her back to Richmond, where more opportunities presented themselves. Sure enough, she was offered a job as the executive director of the non-profit group Virginians For Alternatives to The Death Penalty (VADP), a group aiming to end the death penalty in Virginia. It was while doing this work that she found her passion for helping people in a legislative setting.
Panilaitis threw herself head first into the tough fight. She was one of two employees, and wore many hats – lobbyist, media rep, and local community builder. “I feel like I got to build the org in the direction I wanted to go,” she said of her time with VADP. “It was a great adventure and I will always be grateful that I got that chance.”
In her two years with VADP, she fought the same piece of legislation which would have made accomplices to murder eligible for the death penalty. Her first year, 2008, had democratic Governor Tim Kaine in office. He vetoed the bill, which had sailed through the VA House and Senate. But in 09, when conservative Gov. Bob McDonnell came into office, her mission was put into overdrive. There would be no gubernatorial veto this time around, and with the cards stacked against her, she set on gathering voices and experts on the subject to make sure the law wasn’t passed.
A Commonwealth’s Attorney came out against the bill; then a capital defense attorney also came out against it, saying he’d make a ton from the state having to defend the accused. Murder victims’ families and a former executioner who had executed 62 people in Virginia also testified against the bill.
As if by some kind of miracle, a number of Senators changed their minds. The bill failed committee.. “It was an amazing thing to watch, and to see how grassroots efforts can pay off and you can have those wins,” says Panilaitis on the success of her efforts.
Still high off her legislative win, Panilaitis heard about the job opening at ROSMY as the former ED left for bigger and better things. She’d been familiar with the organization for some time, and jumped at the chance to get involved.
“I loved [ROSMY] so much, and all of these things came into play. The time at VADP prepared me for it… I had a better grasp on how to run an organization and how to fundraise,” she says.
Though she no longer works with policy-making at the state level, or lobbying in general, she’s still working with internal policies. “It’s different, but one of the things that really attracted me to ROSMY was getting to see those victories every day… on the faces of the kids who say ‘I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for ROSMY.’”
And it’s the kids that keep her coming back. She’s built the organization’s base, applied her fundraising experience to help weather the recent economic storm, and helped expand programs like the Institute for Equality, which trains school personnel and human service providers to work with LGBTQ youth.
“In four years we went from training under 100 people a year to over 1600 people a year,” said Panilaitis about the IFE’s impacts.
But it hasn’t been easy. The same challenges which so many nonprofits face plague ROSMY. “I wish we could grow geographically, There are programs I wish we could have in Richmond – we are constantly trying to prioritize what we can do now with limited resources.”
She’s made some headway here – adding a middle school support group and transgender support group to Richmond programming and doubling the number of youth served annually..
Panilaitis also says she continues to face homophobia when dealing with local communities. “We get a lot of push back from schools, from folks in the community, when we want to go out and provide information to make sure LGBTQ youth are safe,” she says. “There are still places that don’t want to talk about it… Depending on who you approach, you get different reactions.”
Panilaitis and I have spent nearly an hour and a half talking. The nice employee at Stir Crazy is about to give us the boot when Panilaitis and I exchange hugs. She’s been a great ally to us here at GayRVA, but we know she’s been an even better ally to Richmond’s LGBTQ youth – and we hope she will continue to be for some time.
The journey that LGBTQ youths live is constantly changing.October 24, 2016
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