"Last year on our campus we saw more than 600 young people and reached over 1,000 young people around the community."
Cindy Watson was named CEO of JASMYN 20 years ago. The nonprofit, formed in 1994, serves LGBTQ youth ages 13-23 in Northeast Florida and plans its 12th annual Coming Out Day Breakfast from 7-9:30 a.m. Oct. 19 at the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront. Watson was a founding board member of the group.
I am the chief holder of the dream. I’m the person that helps facilitate the organization’s vision for our work with LGBTQ young people and the larger youth population in Jacksonville, and I work in the community to raise awareness and educate people about the issues.
I was privileged to work in the legal services field with people around mental health and health issues and disparities. It was in 1992 and part of my work involved reaching out to people with HIV and AIDS, and that just really got into my heart. I got a call from a group of volunteers who were organizing to do support groups for LGBTQ young people in Jacksonville and I thought, this is it. I really want to help prevent HIV and what better way to do it than with young people. I got involved in 1994 as a founding board member and in 1998 was hired as the first executive director.
I’ve seen it grow from a budget of $20,000 to almost $2 million. We employ about 22 full-time staff. In the last few years, our space has expanded from one building that’s a youth center to a campus of three buildings. I’ve seen Jacksonville through the years when some people were hostile or afraid of being involved with the organization to today. People are drawn to the work we do and they have a passion for helping young people and for LGBTQ young people. What has never changed is that every decision we make is based on what’s best for the young people that we’re serving.
Last year on our campus we saw more than 600 young people and reached over 1,000 young people around the community. We look at the census estimates for LGBTQ young people and we guess we’re serving 5 to 10 percent of the population. We also know there are a lot of young people who are impacted by our presence. We’ve counted all the young people we’ve seen over the years and we know it’s well over 20,000 young people in the organization’s history.
Our board and our staff and our volunteers were deeply involved in the work to amend the Human Rights Ordinance in the city of Jacksonville.
A big part of what we do helps to improve the civic openness of the community, and that attracts people to Jacksonville. It’s impressive that Jacksonville supports this kind of vibrancy in the LGBTQ community. That sends a positive message and encourages young people to stay in town because they see that this is a place where we can be creative and we can be ourselves.
We have a tremendous amount of support from the business and corporate community. Deutsche Bank, VyStar Credit Union, Baptist Health, Florida Blue, Wells Fargo, Citi, many of those are longtime supporters, and there are many more.
I grew up in upstate South Carolina in a small town. I wanted to be a teacher, that was my first aspiration. I’ve never been a classroom teacher but I certainly have had many opportunities to work with young people and to mentor young people.
I live on the Trout River and I enjoy the river lifestyle, cooking crabs and boating. We enjoy our family – we have two granddaughters. I’m a bird-watcher and I love the peace and beauty of being out in nature.