Story by Renee Baker, Edge Publications, Sept. 4, 2008.
After he was threatened, assaulted and thrown in the trash for being both gay and Asian, Jimmy Bounthavy became a recluse and dropped out of North Dallas High School. With the help of the newly-formed GED program at Youth First Texas, Bounthavy is now proud to be the first of six to go to college in his whole family.
Bounthavy came out at a young age, in middle school, without fanfare. He did well in school and says it was a fun time. That didn’t last long. “When I hit high school, everything changed,” he says. Bounthavy was harassed and bullied. He was called names and threatened. “A group of guys there threw me in the dumpster.” To get home, he says he needed protection from two friends carrying knives, as he was once “jumped by a group of kids at the local park.”
With so much fear, Bounthavy shut himself down. He no longer mingled with other people, and didn’t have many friends. “Eventually, he dropped out of high school altogether. His family was disappointed, and he didn’t want to let them down, but with his fear of harassment, he felt he had no choice. “I became very afraid of the world,” he says. “I just couldn’t go back there.”
Bounthavy found hope in Youth First Texas, a nonprofit center supporting GLBTQ youth in North Texas. A friend told him about it one day so he went to the youth center to find out what it was all about. He found acceptance there. Nobody judged him and he could just simply be himself. “Youth First is like a second home to me. Everyone is so welcoming and the volunteers are wonderful. I can be who I want to be here.”
Bounthavy also said he attempted suicide over 20 times and he would be dead now, were not for Youth First. Suicide attempts are not uncommon for GLBT youth. According to a large sample youth study recently released by Youth First Texas, 47% have attempted suicide in their lifetime and 17% have tried within the last year. The good news is that there is support and hope, and Youth First Texas is making a difference.
Education is his new ticket of hope. He became the first student in the GED program at Youth First, which now has eight students. It is his ticket out of the neighborhood where he says only this last week there was murder across the street, not to mention people have kicked in his doors and broken his windows. The GED program is Bounthavy’s means to a better way of life, where he can make his mother proud.
His mother, Souphy Bounthavy, suffers from diabetes and is on disability. She is blind in one eye and is mending from a broken ankle and broken knee. There is no way she can work and send her son to another school. She is supportive though, of her son being gay, even if in a roundabout way. Bounthavy says she simply told him, “You have to learn to cook for your wife.” He said, “But mom, I’m gay.” She just repeated herself, “So. You have to learn to cook for your wife.”
The GED program that Bounthavy participates in was launched in July of this year. Judith Dumont, Director of Administration at Youth First, hopes to put 25 youth through the program each year. “With their GEDs, these youth become empowered, they feel strong inside and they develop a can-do attitude. It gives the youth a necessary bridge to continue on in a community college or a university, or move onto a technical school, or get into a professional opportunity.”
Dumont says watching Bounthavy go through a complete turnaround in the last six months has been beautiful to watch. “He does his homework every day and he comes to his tutoring classes three times per week”, she says. Dumont is proud he took the bold step of being the “seed” student for the GED program – now seven others have enrolled. Dumont says Bounthavy’s self-esteem has really shot up and you can see it in his smile. He is now an ambassador for the youth center and speaks at DISD and SMU about his life and experience at the center.
Holding back tears, Dumont recalls Bounthavy’s recent dream last week. “He was so excited when he came into the center and yelled, ’Judith! I had this dream! I was back in my old high school. I told my favorite teachers that I made it and I didn’t give up! Then, all of a sudden, I was in this big beautiful school, and trying to find my new classes.’” Dumont can hardly contain herself when she tells how his world is beginning to expand.
Bounthavy takes his final GED test in October and hopes to make his mother proud. He says, “I want to let her see me grow up and go to college and graduate and be a successful person.”
The GED program at Youth First Texas is not expensive, but they do need sponsors for each youth. The cost of books and supplies for each youth is only $100, but it gives the youth a new lease on life.
More information about Youth First Texas is available at www.youthfirsttexas.org.
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