After learning other local area school students were starting up gay-straight alliances, former Vincent Massey High School student Olivia Voutier, set out to form a diversity group of her own.
"Some kids don’t have as good of a home situation and as good of friends so they need a place to feel safe," she said.
Voutier said that she’s lucky to have always had a solid support system and wanted other students to have the same.
Around the time she was in Grade 8, she realized something about her sexuality, but shied away from telling anyone about it.
"I just sort of ignored it because I was already being picked on for everything else so it was just another thing that was different so other people would just tease me for that so I just kept quiet about it."
But she didn’t stay silent for very long. She came out to her parents in Grade 10 and told her friends shortly after.
"They were all fine with it, they were all really supportive."
To ensure that other students like her had added support that they may not be getting at home or from friends, Voutier started Massey’s first-ever GSA. The student-led group, she hoped, would provide other students with a safe place to go.
"Even though I was graduating that year I knew there would be other kids like me that needed a place to go."
Before she graduated in 2012, she wanted to get the group started and then hopefully motivate enough students to keep it going. Although she didn’t have the chance to watch the group grow to what it is now, she did get something out of it before she graduated.
"I met a bunch of other kids in school that I could identify with and I made a good friend Chris who is the one keeping it going now sort of."
The group is now known as a diversity group and consists of a few students who host meetings to discuss all sorts of issues affecting their school, host fundraisers and are continuing to promote the group and its purpose.
The small but dedicated group "fills a need in our school system," Vincent Massey guidance counsellor Susan Gilleshammer said.
"I’m thrilled that we have this group in our school now," she said. "We know that demographic in particular needs support and needs understanding so that’s been a great sign of progress."
More importantly she says the group promotes a higher level of understanding.
"Understanding is growing around this issue and the fact that students that identify as LGBT are at a higher risk for riskier behaviours in particular depression, anxiety, suicide, we want to make sure we have supports in place so there’s lots of people in the school who have been involved with alliance training," she said. "We’re open to talking about this issue, we understand the struggles and challenges these students are facing so this group was definitely a step in the right direction to address that."
Discussing these types of issues is a real sign of progress, she added.
"It’s accomplished a good level of awareness in our school and that’s the starting point," she said. "Even just 10 years ago people didn’t want to talk about this as much and now that it is much more evident in the mainstream media and there’s just a greater level of acceptance all over it is becoming more comfortable for everybody to talk about. As a school system we’ve been very quick to respond to any bullying issues ... hopefully students are feeling more comfortable coming forward because we are talking about it so much."
Gilleshammer has been a counsellor at Massey for the past four years and says that they try to address any issues that might be creating problems for students.
"I think anything that students bring forward we’re pretty open about talking about it whether in the classroom or with presentations, assemblies or anything like that so we’ve been pretty proactive addressing issues here."
But sometimes students need to seek help outside of the classroom, she said, so they are referred to other resources that the in-school social worker can also help with.
To make students feel more comfortable talking to the counsellors, they do things like classroom visits, introduce themselves and try to make connections with the students that way, she said.
They also try their best to stay alert and be aware of any underlining issues students may be facing.
"Sometimes when you’re talking about an academic issue, a social issue will come up so just making sure we’re always talking to kids and being aware and really concise that there may be something else they’re coming to the office for so it’s important as a counsellor to be sensitive and be aware that everyone has a different story walking through the door and you just have to figure out what that story is."