Web Analytics Made Easy - Statcounter

Free 2 Luv a beacon of hope for LGBTQ+ youth

Share this Post:
Photo by Shane O'Neal
Photo by Shane O'Neal

The holiday season can be hard for LGBTQ+ youth who don't have a robust support group around them. Tonya Sandis understands this strain, which is why she started the organization Free 2 Luv with her wife 12 years ago.

"It was based on the suicide epidemic. We were heartbroken by what was going on," Sandis said.

She and her wife both worked in the entertainment industry and noticed how creativity can help those in need. "We utilized the arts to uplift, engage, and empower young people to be themselves. We provide a safe space for them to express themselves and talk about whatever is going on in their world in a creative space," Sandis said.

Free 2 Luv started as a way for LGBTQ+ youth to find mentors and embrace the power of music. "Music heals. If you're in a bad mood, it can flip it, or it can help you sit with what you're going through and allow you to deal with what that is," Sandis said. "I knew it's a creative way to have tough conversations, specifically for Queer youth, to say, 'What kind of music expresses where you are at this time in your life? When something happens, what does that sound like?' From that, we do a lot of art and conversations."

Express It journal
Since the pandemic, the organization has expanded to embrace all kinds of art.

When the COVID-19 crisis gripped the nation, Sandis and her wife noticed that LGBTQ+ youth may be particularly affected by mental health issues, and they set out to do something about it. "We worked with youth artists, psychologists, and child behavioral specialists to figure out how we can make something that can be safe, expressive, and be able to communicate any way they want," Sandis said.

The result was the Express It journal, a quality sketchbook and journal hybrid featuring original gender-neutral characters. "It walks them through healthy anger versus not healthy anger, or five things that put you in a good mood when you're in a bad mood," Sandis said. "If you're feeling like you want to harm yourself, what are tools you can take, and [know] that there's no shame in asking for help. There's strength in that."

Today, Express It is in its fourth edition. Its 72 pages are bound in a leather-like cover and include a space to write song lyrics. The book is marketed toward LGBTQ+ people between 12 and 24, since, though the original concept was to aid teens, Sandis said she's noticed that many young adults also gravitate toward the journal.

"I see it in adult spaces all the time — in universities and such. It turned out to be way more successful than we'd ever imagined," she said.

Free 2 Luv also hosts virtual workshops for people in need of community. Leaders and trained mental health professionals are available to chat, which is one of Sandis's favorite parts of working with the organization.

"The biggest win for me is when someone comes to me and says, 'I'm thinking of harming myself,' and we talk it through. I can give them my cellphone, or if we're DMing, [they can] talk it through and get through it, and they're still here," she said.

Joy and power in moving through difficulty
Sandis has received multiple lifetime achievement awards for her work with Free 2 Luv, such as the L'Oreal Paris Woman of Worth this year. But the accolades don't compare to the human connection she creates.

"For me, no award is better than the award of a life lived," she said. We're not always going to have good days, but don't let those bad days get in the way of all your beautiful future and the thumbprint you're going to put on that planet."

Sandis feels that the organization is just as important in 2023 as it was in 2011. "The world is a whole lot of yucky," she said. "One of our major [principles] is finding the joy and power in moving through stuff. Sometimes, it feels almost impossible when you have people who are banning books and passing legislation against Trans youth. It feels like we're in an uphill battle.

"What we're finding is that mental health needs have to be met. Express It is a beautiful way to have those conversations. There has to be an open dialogue about how we're feeling. Even as adults, it's tough to know how to express ourselves in this climate."

Free 2 Luv provides free copies of the Express It journal and a We Care package to anyone in need. "If you're struggling and you feel like you need a boost, reach out to us, and we will send one of those Express It books and a note and some empowerment jewelry that says, 'Hey, we're here for you, and we think you're amazing,'" Sandis said.

The organization has big plans for the future, as well. On November 20, it will host a Trans photo shoot in LA for a future billboard project. The billboards will be up in Washington in 2024.

Sandis hopes to continue to expand the group's outreach in 2024 and encourages anyone who can to donate or promote Free 2 Luv. However, more than money, Sandis asks the community to just be kind.

"It's really easy to be kind and compassionate. We never know what someone is going through. That in itself is a game changer. It's free."