All are welcome here

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Nature blogger

At age 8, Mo Santiago, now 16, realized that her aunt was gay, and in a beautiful, loving relationship with a woman.

That understanding has widened her world view.

"I grew up with her being gay, and I think that is one of the reasons I am a very diverse person now because she has always been in my life," the OPRF High School junior says.

That's why, in her freshman year, Santiago sought out the extracurricular club, A Place for All (APA), formerly the Gay-Straight Alliance, after hearing about it at one of the school's activity fairs.

What drew her in was its apparent openness to a range of people, not only those in the LGBTQ community but also students of different races and religions.

"The first time I went to APA there were all these people being crazy, intriguing, welcoming and inviting all at the same time," she says. "It was like this big high school family."

A safe space for students

Having all sorts of students walk into her room at 3:15 p.m. on Mondays and freely participate in the club, is the point, after all, says APA co-sponsor Amy Stanis, the OPRF special education teacher, who co-leads the student group with science teacher Kyle Farley.

The group was formed in 1996 and is one of the oldest gay-straight alliances (GSA) in the Chicago area. Initially, the group only had a handful of students, who mostly identified themselves as being gay.

Since then, APA's numbers have grown exponentially, reaching about 30 kids who joined in the last year, including "kids who are questioning; kids who are straight; kids who identify as gay, bi-sexual, transgendered; … kids who have come from same-sex households. It really runs the gamut in terms of sexual identity or gender expression," Stanis says.

"We have guest speakers who come in from different organizations, like the Center on Halsted in Chicago. We've had people from OPALGA [Oak Park Lesbian and Gay Association] come in and PRISM [Pride, Raising awareness, Involvement, Support, and Mentoring], graduates who come in and share their experiences even post-high school."

Sometimes, they just pull out popcorn and watch a movie (from Finding Nemo to Charlie's Angels and the WTTW documentary, Out and Proud).

"One of the sub-goals of APA is to provide opportunities and resources for kids who may be, or are, questioning. Or maybe they have a friend in a GSA, and they want to know what to do and what to say. Or perhaps other students are in situations that make them uncomfortable. We try and give students information, and through that, eventually tolerance and acceptance of the diversity of other students will happen."

As this season of A Place for All kicks off, Santiago is once again hoping to stage a bake sale that will raise $1,000 to fund their "Adventure Night" — a big event where APA members invite other GSA high school clubs to meet up and eat pizza, go rock climbing, and just hang out.

"People who come here who are out, I feel, become more comfortable with themselves here," Santiago says. "And kids who are not even out yet often come out during their club experience … because it feels so much better being in an area where they are always accepted."

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