Meet Gillary: She’s 18, and Already Changing the World
Gillary is sharing her story as part of our “Voces: Somos FLOC/ Voices: We Are FLOC” campaign to highlight stories from our members to raise funds and build awareness to support the important organizing work our members are doing in the fields. Please consider making a donation today to support this campaign.
Meet Gillary Lanzo. While most 18-year-olds graduate from high school a little unsure of what’s next, Gillary knows exactly where she’s headed, and she has a heart full of passion, drive, and excitement to get her there. Gillary is one of FLOC’s rising leaders, and she brings her passion and love for her community to the FLOC Homies Union, a youth organizing committee based in our Ohio office.
Gillary grew up near San Juan, Puerto Rico, surrounded by drugs, gangs, and frequent shootings so close to her house that her and her siblings weren’t allowed to play outside. “It was really bad and traumatizing, especially for kids. Once, my mom baked a cake and walked down the street to give it to a friend, and got shot in the leg on the way.”
But more than anything, Gillary remembers growing up surrounded by a loving family: her mom, two brothers, one sister, and plenty of aunts, uncles, and cousins that raised her in a peaceful, loving home, despite the violence outside her front door.
When Gillary was 13, her mom surprised her and her siblings with plane tickets to the United States. This was their ticket out of a life of violence and gangs, and into the promise of a safer community and a good education. One week later, Gillary and her family packed up their things, and moved to Ashtabula, Ohio, where they moved in with her aunt.
Soon after moving, Gillary started the seventh grade. “It was so hard,” she remembers. “The school was huge, and I didn’t speak much English. I couldn’t understand my class schedule, so I used to show people the room number and then follow them to get to class.”
Just one year later, Gillary found herself packing her bags again to move to Florida, where an uncle had told them she would have access to the best schools. Disappointed in what they found, Gillary’s mom made the difficult decision to move back to Ohio two years later. But this time, she was determined to put down some roots and keep her family in one place. They bought a house in Toledo, OH, where Gillary started high school.
Despite all of the turbulence in her life, Gillary never lost focus of where she was headed. She has a passion for working with animals, and in her junior year in high school she found the Natural Science Technology Center, and signed up for the Small Animal Management Program. During her senior year, she landed an internship at Toledo Zoo in the education department, where she learned to train birds, and helped feed and care for the animals.
Gillary also has a passion for interpreting. After her family moved from Puerto Rico and she learned English through school, she often translated for family members at doctor appointments and in public when they were struggling to communicate. “I remember how hard it was for me to learn English. I couldn’t understand other kids in the lunch room, and I remember getting funny looks. It’s nice to be able to help others who are still learning,” she says.
When she found FLOC, Gillary saw an opportunity to combine her love for animals, interpreting, and helping her community. She started out as a volunteer, making phone calls and attending community meetings. Intrigued by the work, she decided to go through FLOC’s organizer training, join the FLOC Homies Union, and apply for the Youth Employment Program, where she was placed in an internship with a local dog groomer.
Now, Gillary spends time at FLOC every day when she finishes her work at the groomer. Through her work with the Homies Union, Gillary has met with the superintendent of Toledo Public Schools to discuss how to protect women in school and respond appropriately to reports of sexual harassment, worked with other youth in the community to reduce violence on the streets, is a part of a committee working on a code of conduct with police to decrease racial profiling and discrimination, and works with the community to report broken lights, roads, and parks to the city so that they can be repaired.
This September, Gillary and the Homies are planning a Peace and Justice Walk to continue their work building bridges in the community to reduce violence on the streets and with the police. “Police are stopping people because of skin color,” she says. “It feels like every person getting pulled over is African American or Hispanic. We’re hoping that as police get to know FLOC, they’ll know that they are wasting their time pulling us over for no reason.”
Gillary says the annual Peace and Justice Walk, started in memory of Abriel Ruiz, who was a community activist working to broker peace between rival gangs, will be an important step in building a stronger, safer community. “We’re really going to show what it looks like for a community to come together and stand up for peace.”
This fall, Gillary is starting college, and plans to study biology. “Someday I’d love to be doing research in a lab. I’m going to do health related research, so I can find cures for diseases that affect animals.”
Will you donate $25, $50, $75, or whatever you’re able to support member organizing? You can easily donate online here, or send a check to 1221 Broadway St. Toledo, OH 43609. Thank you for your generous support!