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Column: Forrest Shearin Was An Unsung Hero in Palm Beach County

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When it comes to charitable organizations, the donors who give the most are frequently the most unassuming. There’s no more apt example than the one set by Forrest Shearin, who passed away just a few days short of his 91st birthday in May.

He served as Compass’ Coming Out Support Group Facilitator, a program he developed because of need, and while never accepting compensation – not a dime – he helped thousands of youth and adults, giving them his full attention and his valued time.

Forrest gave himself to Compass one night every week for more than 20 years. With near perfect attendance, he drove from Broward to wherever Compass was located that specific year, arriving Thursday night around 6 p.m.; well before his group was set to start.

He always came in early just in case someone through the week was encouraged to meet him one-on-one before group. The group’s name reveals its aim to provide a safe atmosphere to people “coming out,” who wished to address topics related to sexual orientation or gender identity by sharing and listening to experiences of peers under Forrest’s guidance and supervision.

The need for such a group seems so straightforward now, almost much too simple. However, in the context of the 20 years of history through which Forrest kept the group alive, he was a pioneer-volunteer when he began a support group in [the] late 1990’s, while the AIDS epidemic was peaking in popularity as the “inevitable” fate for those who embraced their homosexuality. The idea that anyone would seek support in outing themselves to their friends, family or anyone - in the hopes of being accepted - was pretty much in its infancy.

At the time Congress was passing regressive laws to keep government recognition of same-sex relationships from ever coming to fruition, throwing virtual closets over men and women in uniform fighting for our country, and upholding laws still criminalizing sodomy disproportionately aimed to harm those bold enough to identify as gay or lesbian. And as far as gender identity, our own community wasn’t leaping to embrace gender non-conformity anytime soon – especially gay men of Forrest’s own demographic - gay, white, men over 50.

So why such passion, and how did he maintain even up to his final days? As his lifetime partner told me earlier this week, “it wasn’t what Forrest did or how he did it – it’s just who he was.”

To us he was the consummate contributor as he donated his time weekly, along with his expertise as a clinical psychologist, regularly paid to attend fundraising events, made annual contributions and directed his friends to do the same, always accepting “thank you” as enough for his generosity. However, with the help of his life partner and his many friends, Compass overruled his modesty and dedicated the Forrest Shearin Coming Out Room to memorialize the special place where he gave what he had and where he shared his wisdom with us all, for as long as he was able.

If you’ve ever met Forrest and had the privilege to see how gently he wielded such a positive influence onto others, his partner’s modest statement speaks directly to integrity so magnanimous it was unavoidably contagious. “It’s just who he was,” is the most accurate description of how he helped so many - for those needing his wise and gentle blue eyes to help them see their path, or for those who’d simply lost their way and could return weekly to his voice.

The gift in Forrest was present in such abundance it filled every cup to the rim. He oozed authenticity, and for people dedicated to being true to themselves and others, that unique light within him imbued both the hopeful and hopeless with the will to accept oneself with such drive and determination, they’d grow to expect nothing less from anyone else.

To understand just how unique Forrest’s life experience became, just consider that only a handful of people who have ever walked this planet can claim to have met such a diverse array of persons. People of all ages who spoke intimately of their life experience and of finding pride in their distinct sexual orientations or the innate gender expressions known only to them as individuals – it was Forrest they turned to, becoming more fearless on their journey.

Over the course of 20 years, from age 70 to 90, he would share what he learned with Compass’ staff, volunteers and with me during quieter moments when something moved him or he thought might move us. In turn Compass institutionalized his teachings year over year. As a result he grew far beyond the volunteer-pioneer he was when I met him my very first night. His teachings infused into the DNA of Compass’ character and laid the foundation that is the architecture of Compass’ mission to this day.

On Father’s Day we celebrated his life in the same home he opened occasionally during renovations to keep his group alive and available for those in need during construction delays. Although he never had children of his own, his home was filled with those of us who respected him and saw him for what he was for Compass and the community. He was not a father biologically, but he will universally be revered as a Founding Father to the Compass family. I’ve said every community needs a Compass, but every Compass needs a Forrest too. He was and always will be a foundation because that’s “just who he was.”

 

– Tony Plakas, Former CEO of Compass


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