The Oak Park Area Lesbian and Gay Association+ (OPALGA+) hosted its annual scholarship gala Oct. 23 at the Nineteenth Century Club in Oak Park. This year’s event, which raised over $25,000 for the OPALGA+ Student Scholarship Fund, celebrated the 2021 scholarship recipients.
OPALGA+ was founded in 1989 as an activist group to support legal protections locally for those identifying as lesbian or gay. The group was initially named OPLGA, but the A was added in 1994 to reflect membership outside of Oak Park. In 2019, the organization made an additional change to its name, incorporating a “+” to become more inclusive. Currently, OPALGA+ is one of the largest LGBTQ+ associations in Illinois, and group members have continued the organization’s mission of blending social connection with political activism.
In 2014, OPALGA+ started the Student Scholarship Fund as a way to financially support local high school seniors and first year college or trade school students who identify as LGBTQ+, are children of LGBTQ+ parents, or are allies of LGBTQ+ people.
The annual Scholarship Gala is the primary fundraiser for the fund. This year, the event included a traditional sit-down dinner, a raffle, and a live auction. Additionally, four previous scholarship award winners gave speeches and several more created videos discussing their future careers, the impact they hoped to have on the world, and what the scholarship award meant to them.
One common theme throughout the presentations was appreciation for the sense of community OPALGA+ provides. This revelation was especially heartwarming to Alisa Ray, co-chair of OPALGA+’s board. “It’s great to be part of a community that cares about your success and that you know is behind you.” Ray said. “We want the kids to feel like they are connected to our community and that there are people that are invested in them, their wellbeing, their mental health, and how they feel.” To support their scholars, OPALGA+ keeps in touch with winners through Zoom calls and other networking events.
Ray has served on the board for seven years and as cochair for three years. She explained how she initially became active in OPALGA+. “For me, it started as a way to meet new people and have fun. I’ve grown up through a time when it was harder to be out and gay but we’re at a point now when it is much simpler. All of us kind of carry this history and it’s been nice to coalesce around the scholarship as the big push for the organization now, our big philanthropy.”
The 2022 scholarship application went live Nov. 1, and the deadline for submissions is Jan. 28. The application as well as a detailed description of application requirements can be found on OPALGA+’s website, www.opalga.org.