Gonzaga University senior Ryan Olson will be honored this Saturday (March 25) in Denver by the Matthew Shepard Foundation with its first "Making a Difference" Youth Award for his work to fight hate and intolerance and promote loving acceptance.
Olson, president of the student club HERO (Helping Educate Regarding Orientation), will be honored along with longtime equal rights activists Robert Desiderio and Judith Light for their longstanding commitment to erase hate. The event is the Foundation’s Fifth Annual Bear to Make a Difference Gala Dinner and Celebrity Teddy Bear Auction.
Perhaps Olson’s greatest accomplishment has been to help foster a positive, healthy and safe campus climate for LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) students. During his freshman year, Olson noticed how volatile the campus was regarding LGBT issues. One of very few openly gay students, he felt something should be done. He helped engage the student body in educational activities such as the Day of Silence and National Coming Out Day. More than 400 students now participate in these events annually. Olson planned, produced and implemented the school’s first LGBT dance, as well as the first gay-friendly Valentines Day dance. Olson is a frequent panelist in discussions around campus telling his story of what it means to be gay.
Passionate about diversity at all levels, Olson has partnered with other organizations such as the Young Democrats, the women’s studies program, Justice Club, student government and other campus clubs to organize fund-raisers and form educational coalitions. He worked on the Kaleidoscope Project in which issues such as Native American Territory rights, racism, facing your fears, gender bias, mental health, holistic living, as well as gay issues were discussed among participants. Olson segregated his schools’ student union by hair color on the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. the Board of Education (historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling) to help students relate to the issue of segregation. He is most proud of his singlehanded fund-raising efforts that brought Matthew Shepard’s mother, Judy Shepard, to speak at Gonzaga in April 2004, an event that drew more than 1,500 people and that has had a lasting positive impact on the campus community.
When asked about these accomplishments, Olson responds modestly, "I have to say that while I have spearheaded many things on my campus, if it wasn't for the courage and love of many different individuals on my campus, many of the things I have done would not have been accomplished. If it were not for all of these people here at my school who are willing to stand up for what they believe in, we would not be where we are today."
The proceeds from the dinner will benefit the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
In conjunction with the event, there will be a live celebrity teddy bear auction featuring personalized bears contributed by Barbra Streisand, Elton John and Bernie Taupin, Cyndi Lauper, Pink, Pamela Anderson and others.
Judy Shepard, executive director of the Foundation, will provide special remarks, while Alec Mapa, comedian and playwright who stars as "Adam Benet" in the UPN series "Half & Half," will be the featured entertainment for the evening. Mike Nelson, chief meteorologist for ABC7News in Denver, will host the event for the second year in a row.
The Matthew Shepard Foundation was founded by Dennis and Judy Shepard in memory of their 21-year old son, Matthew, who was murdered in an anti-gay hate crime in Wyoming in October 1998. Created to honor Matthew in a manner that was appropriate to his dreams, beliefs and aspirations, the Foundation seeks to "Replace Hate with Understanding, Compassion & Acceptance" through its varied educational programs and by continuing to tell Matthew’s story.
To purchase tickets or for more information about the evening, visit the following Web site: www.MatthewShepard.org