With longevity in mind, the founders of nonprofit organization Lighthouse LGBTQ have developed a scholarship fund that will help local graduates headed for higher education.
The Lighthouse LGBTQ Scholarship is a $1,000 award that will be presented to a student graduating from Homewood-Flossmoor High School who identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer, or their allies, and works to increase visibility for the LGBTQ community.
According to Lighthouse co-founder James Austin, the nonprofit will match the $5,000 recently raised online for the scholarship fund.
“That’s $10,000, which means the scholarship fund will last 10 full years without any additional contribution. We’re just so excited; we couldn’t be happier,” Austin said.
The group plans to continue fundraising for the scholarship, he said, with hopes it will continue for decades more.
Since its inception five years ago, Lighthouse co-founders Austin, Stephanie Wright and Valerie Litchfield have worked to shape the group’s presence in the Homewood-Flossmoor community.
Lighthouse was awarded 501(c)3 status in June 2019, just ahead of its annual Pride Party. The COVID-19 pandemic set in about nine months later, dashing plans for a 2020 Pride Party and halting in-person educational sessions.
“COVID really paralyzed us,” Austin said. “Everything we built was based around people being together, gathering to celebrate or educate.”
The scholarship idea emerged at this time as a concrete way for Lighthouse to benefit the LGBTQ youth community in Homewood and Flossmoor, by supporting H-F High School graduates who pursue higher education at two- or four-year institutions.
Austin said his late grandfather, longtime Flossmoor resident James F. Gallagher, started a scholarship in his own name at his alma mater, University of Notre Dame. Austin always admired his grandfather's scholarship fund, and now along with Lighthouse, he leaves a legacy at HFHS, where he graduated in 2012.
The HFHS Foundation will administer the Lighthouse scholarship, managing the funds and accepting applications. After narrowing the field, they’ll pass a list of final candidates to Austin, Litchfield and Wright, who will select the scholarship recipient.
According to Lighthouse, the scholarship is the first of its kind in the south suburbs, one awarded only to LGBTQ youth or their allies who advocate for visibility and rights of LGBTQ people.
“It’s a way to reward them for this work in a way they haven’t been rewarded before,” Austin said.
In addition to providing a financial boost for the recipient, Austin said he thinks the scholarship stands as a symbol of visibility in itself. It shows young people that the rights of LGBTQ individuals are valid, he said.
“To be able to recognize people who for so long have been marginalized has been super impactful on our society,” Austin said.
For Austin, who said he had the experience of being “closeted” in high school, seeing examples of successful LGBTQ individuals was motivating and self-actualizing for him. Soon the Homewood native will move to Philadelphia to begin law school, after a college career at DePaul University.
“Seeing someone that comes from your community who’s doing something you wonder whether you can do as an LGBTQ person — I had that experience in high school,” Austin said, adding that it led to his path toward a law career. “Higher education was the best thing I could have done.”
An online fundraiser for the Lighthouse LGBTQ Scholarship remains open through June.