These high school students threw an LGBTQ prom that few will forget.

Prom night for Blair Smith didn’t begin in a stretch limo. It started with a broken down car in a high school parking lot and a ticking clock.

Smith had spent the last four weeks pulling together the dance amid a punishing schedule that included fundraising, advertising, and studying for AP exams. Now he had chaperones to organize, food to distribute, and a quickly dwindling supply of minutes.

Frantic, he hitched a ride home, borrowed his mom's car and sped toward the event hall, where he and his fellow student organizers helped put the finishing touches on their hard work.


By 7 p.m., the room was ready.

Photo by Brian Reach.

This was no ordinary prom.

There was no king, no queen, and few tuxedos. Instead, there was a space for over 300 LGBTQ youth to dress and dance how they wanted and, more importantly, a space to be completely themselves without fear of judgment.

The students at NOVA Pride Prom gather for a group shot. Photo via NOVA Pride.

The May 12 event, dubbed "NOVA Pride Prom," began two years ago at Loudon Valley High School. Smith, who took charge of planning this year's event as his senior project, partnered with local LGBTQ advocacy organizations to expand the celebration to include all of northern Virginia.

The goal was to create a prom less beholden to tradition and more open to free expression.

The theme was "Celebrate Our Past," and the venue was decorated with artwork paying tribute to LGBTQ heroes and history.

"There wasn’t the typical prom drama that happens where, 'Oh my god, she’s wearing the same dress as me,' or 'Oh, is he dancing with her?'" Smith explains of NOVA Pride Prom. "It was really just a place where people could come together and meet for the first time."

Smith (center) with advisor Amy Cannava at Pride Prom. Photo via NOVA Pride.

In addition to the dance floor, Smith and his co-planners set up a lounge with board games and couches for students to socialize and tables where local advocacy organizations — NOVA Pride, GLSEN NOVA, and the Trevor Project — could distribute resources.

Creating spaces like NOVA Pride Prom where young LGBTQ people can feel at home is crucial to their development.

"'Comfortable' may sound like a simple term to a lot of people, but it is not something that some people are experiencing in their day to day life. Just being comfortable is a huge deal," explains Brian Reach, who runs NOVA Pride, one of the organizations that partnered with Smith to run the event.

"Celebrate our Past" #novaprideprom #lgbtqyouth #novapride #loveislove #loveislocal

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Growing up in northern Virginia, Reach recalled being the frequent target of verbal abuse. One incident, in which he was called "the other f-word" over the school loudspeaker injured him so deeply he wound up faking sickness so that his mom would take him home.

"I had a lot of sick days," he says.

For Reach, NOVA Pride Prom was a chance to give LGBTQ young people from his home region a celebration a chance to celebrate their lives and achievements in a way he barely could have imagined as a student.

"This is by far probably the event I’m the most proud of," he says.

While Reach says conditions for LGBTQ people have improved dramatically in the politically divided area since he was growing up, tensions still occasionally threaten to spill over and sometimes do.

Earlier in the school year, the LGBTQ rights group Smith founded in his high school was asked to remove promotional posters at the urging of a local parent.

In January, a motion to add LGBTQ protections to Loudon County school system's employment discrimination policy was defeated in a hotly contested school board vote.

Still, Smith says teachers and administrators at his school have largely applauded his efforts to organize and support his LGBTQ classmates.

Photo via NOVA Pride.

Both Smith and Reach say they received almost no pushback from the community about the dance.

The venue, the Bellevue Conference and Events Center, provided the space at a large discount.

Fundraising efforts were met with messages of support and donations from a wide cross-section of parents, students, teachers, and local residents. (Despite the community support, NOVA Pride is still raising money to cover the costs of the dance and supports continuing outreach efforts to LGBTQ youth in the area.)

In many ways, NOVA Pride Prom was a typical school dance — which was exactly the point.

As the night wore on, chaperones and students dropped their guard, made new friends, and danced the Macarena.

The success of the event, Smith thinks, shouldn't surprise anyone. He credits to his fellow student organizers for helping realize the best version of what a prom can be. "It’s amazing … to see how hardworking students can be when they’re passionate about something," he says.

For other students, the night was anything but typical.

"I'm trans and bi. I’ve grown up in a family that would rather have a dead daughter than a son like me," one student wrote  in an anonymous e-mail to Reach. The dance, the student explained, was the first time they'd felt not only accepted, but happy and among friends — something they never knew was possible.

The message was aglow with joy, gratitude, and perhaps most importantly, comfort.

"I can’t believe it was real," they effused. "I got to be myself and live the way I wanted."

Photo courtesy of Yoplait
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When Benny Mendez asked his middle school P.E. students why they wanted to participate in STOKED—his new after school program where kids can learn to skateboard, snowboard, and surf—their answers surprised him.

I want to be able to finally see the beach, students wrote. I want to finally be able to see the snow.

Never having seen snow is understandable for Mendez's students, most who live in Inglewood, CA, just outside of Los Angeles. But never having been to the beach is surprising, since most of them only live 15-20 minutes from the ocean. Mendez discovered many of them don't even know how to swim.

"A lot of the kids shared that they just want to go on adventures," says Mendez. "They love nature, but...they just see it in pictures. They want to be out there."

Mendez is in his third year of teaching physical education at View Park K-8 school, one of seven Inner City Foundation Education schools in the Los Angeles area. While many of his students are athletically gifted, Mendez says, they often face challenges outside of school that limit their opportunities. Some of them live in neighborhoods where it's unsafe to leave their houses at certain times of day due to gang activity, and many students come to his P.E. class with no understanding of why learning about physical health is important.

"There's a lot going on at home [with my students]," says Mendez. "They're coming from either a single parent home, or foster care. There's a lot of trauma behind what's going on at home...that is out of our control."

Photo courtesy of Yoplait

What Mendez can control is what he gives his students when they're in his care, which is understanding, some structure, and the chance to try new things. Mendez wakes up at 4:00 a.m. most days and often doesn't get home until 9:00 p.m. as he works tirelessly to help kids thrive. Not only does he run after school programs, but he coaches youth soccer on the weekends as well. He also works closely with other teachers and guidance counselors at the school to build strong relationships with students, and even serves as a mentor to his former students who are now in high school.

Now Mendez is earning accolades far and wide for his efforts both in and out of the classroom, including a surprise award from Yoplait and Box Tops for Education.

Yoplait and Box Tops are partnering this school year to help students reach their fullest potential, which includes celebrating teachers and programs that support that mission. Yoplait is committed to providing experiences for kids and families to connect through play, so teaming up with Box Tops provided an opportunity to support programs like STOKED.

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Dr. David McPhee offers advice for talking to someone living in a different time in their head.

Few things are more difficult than watching a loved one's grip on reality slipping away. Dementia can be brutal for families and caregivers, and knowing how to handle the various stages can be tricky to figure out.

The Alzheimer's Association offers tips for communicating in the early, middle and late stages of the disease, as dementia manifests differently as the disease progresses. The Family Caregiver Alliance also offers advice for talking to someone with various forms and phases of dementia. Some communication tips deal with confusion, agitation and other challenging behaviors that can come along with losing one's memory, and those tips are incredibly important. But what about when the person is seemingly living in a different time, immersed in their memories of the past, unaware of what has happened since then?

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!