In 2004, a group of women in the South Florida LGBT community, Cindy Brown, Alicia Apfel, Vivian LaMadrid, Martha Sternberg, Elizabeth Schwartz, Alison Burgos, and Robin Schwartz believed it was time to have an organization for LBT women and run by LBT women. Their vision turned into reality with the conception of the non-profit South Florida organization, The Aqua Foundation for Women (AFW).
“We wanted Aqua to focus on the needs of the LBT women in South Florida and be the voice of LBT women in South Florida,” said co-founder Robin Schwartz. “We wanted to bring more LBT women into the LGBTQ community in a more active way. We wanted more people to either volunteer more or give more financially.”
Thirteen years later, this is still the foundation’s focus, along with an additional emphasis on the transgender community and youth homelessness.
One of the accomplishments of the AFW includes its important impact on individual LBT women.
“Emotional and financial support is extremely important. The other day I was in Wilton Manors watching a live band and a past scholarship recipient came up to me to say thank you,” Schwartz said. “She said she was so happy in her career and that she could not have done it without the support of the Aqua Foundation.”
For many of the AFW scholars, the scholarship funds are the difference between going to college or not. In addition to the Scholars Program, there is a Mentor’s Program where someone who is established in their career signs up to mentor an Aqua Foundation scholarship recipient.
“Many Aqua Foundation scholars and mentors say that they end up being like family,” Schwartz explained. “For others the inspiration they get by meeting confident, out, and successful LBT women at the Emerging LBT Women's Leadership Conference that the Aqua Foundation produces, gives them what they need to take that next step in their career or even to come out to their parents.”
When given an opportunity to brag about some of the AFW scholars, Schwartz mentioned two former scholars, Enbar Cohen and Bridget Pelaez.
“Enbar Cohen went from scholar to Commissioner of Aventura. She is now an Executive at Jackson Memorial Hospital. Bridget Pelaez graduated and is a nurse and an activist.”
The AFW also produces “TransCon,” a yearly conference focused on transgender topics, trainings, and workshops. According to Schwartz, a former AFW board member, Jessica Lam, ascertained the idea to start a conference for the South Florida community to support the transgender community.
“It was a progressive and important accomplishment as TransCon has become a vital source for discussion, information and support to the transgender community,” Schwartz said.
The AFW has also been an instrumental South Florida organization in addressing and fighting LGBT youth homelessness through a three-year initiative where the AFW committed itself to providing grant funding for the issue.
According to Schwartz, “Aqua reached out to The Miami Foundation and Our Fund and together they gave $100,000 to support youth who find themselves homeless. In years two and three the Aqua Foundation continued to provide funding. The board of Aqua is dedicated to continuing this important work.”
In the past, the AFW has also worked to “get out the vote.” Schwartz stated, “Aqua has worked to get women to register to vote. Our voices are heard strongly through our vote and I would like to see Aqua do more of this work.”
To continue the work of programming, the organization relies on support from the local community to attend their fundraising events. The AFW will be hosting their annual “Aqua Affair” on Oct. 26 at the Betsy Hotel in Miami Beach. The Betsy Hotel is a longtime ally of the AFW and other LGBT non-profits in South Florida, and is donating their venue and providing the fare for the event.
“This event will be a wonderful cocktail party in a gorgeous location with a great opportunity to learn a bit more about the Aqua Foundation and meet great people. I have had women in their mid-life tell me that going to our events have helped them feel accepted and not alone,” Schwartz said. “We welcome LBT women and our allies to join us in supporting the only women's organization of its kind in South Florida. Join the movement!”