‘My small apartment was OVERFLOWING with garments, and my heart and spirit were overflowing with JOY.’: Man starts ‘Knit the Rainbow’ to help LGBTQ youth in need

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“My story begins in a small town outside of Orlando, Florida called Saint Cloud. Whenever I am asked to share an interesting fact about myself in one of those typical ice-breakers, I always share I am the oldest of eight children. Yes, this means I have seven younger siblings! The oldest being my 23-year-old brother who is married and has three beautiful boys of his own (my nephews who, in my family, famously refer to me as ‘Guncle Austin’), and the youngest, my 8-year-old sister, who is just beginning to figure out who she wants to be in this world. The reason I always begin my story with my siblings is because being the oldest really shaped me into the person I am today, a 26-year-old biracial, gay man who lives in New York City. Allow me to expand. Some of the traits and skills I learned as the oldest sibling included responsibility, time management, leadership, organization, humor, unconditional love, and the ability to argue ‘til the cows come home.

Courtesy of Austin Rivers

While I know being the oldest sibling is what allowed me to build these traits/skills, I also deeply understand I could not have learned any of those things without my parents and extended family members who were the literal village that raised me and my siblings. My parents started young, my mother was only a junior in high school when I was born. This means I was there for all of her most exciting senior year moments: homecoming, prom, graduation, you name it! This also meant raising me took the help of my aunts and uncles, grandparents, and other close family friends for the first couple years of life while my parents graduated high school and started working. None of this stopped my parents from igniting within me the drive to aim for the stars. In high school, I was a member of several academic clubs, chorus, drama, and marching band, and I took classes part-time at the local community college so I could graduate high school with my diploma and my associate’s degree at the same time.

Courtesy of Austin Rivers

This academic push in high school led me to receive the most college scholarships of any other student in my graduating class. I then moved 1,000 miles north to New York City to attend New York University in 2012. Because I completed two years of college in high school, I was able to pursue a double bachelor’s degree in drama from the Tisch School of the Arts and in politics from the College of Arts and Sciences. While in college, I continued my high school tradition of doing too much at once. In addition to being regularly cast in shows and pursuing two degrees at once, I completed two internships with federal elected officials in New York, I worked 2-3 paid jobs each semester to pay for food and lodging, I was a Martin Luther King Jr. Scholar, studied abroad in two countries, and I supervised a group of ten college students to complete a 2-week service trip in the Dominican Republic.

Courtesy of Austin Rivers

This trichotomy of public service, politics, and theater has really guided my life since I graduated college in 2016. My first ‘real’ job outside of college was working on the Hillary Clinton Campaign for President as a Field Organizer in 2016. Little did I know at the time when you work on a campaign, you work 60-80 hours a week. The campaign becomes your whole life. This was something new for me. I was always so used to splitting myself up into clubs, academics, shows, and jobs, I wasn’t used to putting my whole self into just ONE thing. Well, it paid off. During my time on the campaign, I had the most active volunteers of any other field organizer in the state and registered hundreds of people to vote each month. After the disappointing and life-rattling election loss in 2016, I made my grand return to theater. I worked in regional theaters around the country, performed on a cruise ship in the mediterranean for six months, toured the country in a smash-hit Off Broadway musical, and toured Japan in an International Disney Concert tour.

Between my study abroad experiences, my service trips in college, and my vast performing gigs, I had become quite the world traveler by 2019. After I returned from my five months performing in Japan, I decided it was time to refocus on my public service career. This led me to pursue a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the University of Central Florida, which I did fully online. While I pursued this degree, I came back to New York and worked as the Director of Operations for a small Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Consultancy. Then the clock struck 2020. I was only halfway done with my master’s degree, had just moved apartments, and just started my own small LLC called the Austin Rivers Voice and Acting Studio, where I taught private voice and acting lessons when the global pandemic that is COVID-19 began. I got lucky, extremely lucky. My master’s degree program was already fully virtual, so it went completely unaffected by the shutdown.

Courtesy of Austin Rivers

In addition, my DEI job was already remote and my studio easily transitioned online, so my income remained intact. Lastly, I had the pleasure of spending the quarantine with three other super talented, super driven, and super gay Black men, my roommates (the cutest one becoming my own little quarantine love story). With the complete shutdown of theater (and most other industries), my ‘reach for the stars’ ambition kicked into high gear. What would I do with all of this new free time while quarantining for the foreseeable future? How would I use this master’s degree I was soon to finish? How could I help those who were not as fortunate as myself during this global pandemic and beyond? This is how Knit the Rainbow, Inc. was born.

Courtesy of Austin Rivers

For some background, when I was performing in Japan, we often took the Shinkansen Bullet Trains to travel between performance cities. We were on these trains every few days for a couple of hours at a time, and I wanted to find something to do other than be on my phone for hours each time. This led me to pick up knitting! One of my castmates already knew how to knit, so she and Youtube ‘University’ were my instructors. Now let me tell you, the first thing I created was terrible. I was attempting to knit up a baby blanket for one of my nephews and ended up creating something completely different. One end was WAY wider than the other and it was only about 12 inches long, so definitely not a baby blanket. But, they say everyone trashes (frogs) their first knit, so that’s what I did.

Courtesy of Austin Rivers

Fast forward again to March 2020, I knew in order to begin a nonprofit, I needed to find a cause I was passionate about and something that didn’t already have multiple nonprofits dedicated to it. When I was researching causes close to my heart, I came across some staggering statistics about the housing crisis facing LGBTQ+ youth in our nation, and specifically in New York City:

  • There are upward of 550,000 homeless LGBTQ+ youth in the United States (between the ages of 12-24).
  • There are at least 8,000 homeless LGBTQ+ youth living in New York City.
  • There are only 350 beds specifically dedicated to homeless LGBTQ+ youth in shelters across the city.
  • This means there are upward of 7,650 homeless LGBTQ+ youth in NYC living without consistent shelter.

This is a staggering number of youth who are left subject to the brutal seasons in New York City. As a Black gay man, who JUST aged out of being considered a youth, I was embarrassed I hadn’t known these statistics prior to this moment. How could there be such a housing disparity facing my community, facing mostly the Black and Brown members of the LGBTQ+ community, that I didn’t know about? I decided THIS was the community I had to help. While I wasn’t in a position to open a shelter of my own to provide more beds for this community, what I could do was knit. So, I decided to start a nonprofit organization whose mission would be to provide handmade knit and crochet winter garments (scarves, beanies, ear warmers, socks, gloves, cowls, sweaters, etc.) to homeless LGBTQ+ youth living in New York City. Hence the organization’s title, Knit the Rainbow (KtR).

The first challenge was finding board members. In order to start a nonprofit organization you have to have at least three board members. This is because, as a public organization, we are governed by a Board of Directors and not by any single CEO or president. This meant I had to find two other people who were passionate about this new mission and ready to get to work to help me build out the organization. I scoured my networks and had conversations with multiple friends, peers, and colleagues until I found Charlie Ferussi and Nishant Makhija. We were finally official! Our founding board of three filed articles of incorporation for a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and just six weeks later, in late April of 2020, we were approved! Before we could officially launch, we had to focus on building the foundation of the organization. To do this, I wanted to find two more members to add some other diverse voices to the board.

Courtesy of Austin Rivers

This search brought us Cecilia Nelson-Hurt and Pilar Adara. Those four folks and myself make up our current Board of Directors. We publicly launched on June 30th, 2020, JUST in time for the final day of Pride Month. With our logo, website, and social media pages, we slowly spread the word about our new organization. We decided to launch with four programs: Garment Collection, focused on collecting handmade garments from volunteers around the country; Pattern Development, focusing of collecting brand-new fashionable patterns for our volunteers to use; Community Outreach, where we could go into the community we serve and teach them skills like knitting and crocheting; and Educating the Masses, where we work to spread the word about the housing crisis facing LGBTQ+ youth in America.

Courtesy of Austin Rivers

I was awestruck by how quickly the fiber arts community got to work for Knit the Rainbow. Within two months of launching, I was invited to speak on panels, do Instagram Live conversations with famous fiber artists, and was virtually invited to knit/crochet groups and clubs around the nation to talk about KtR. Because of the welcoming arms of the fiber arts and craftivist community, we started to receive monetary and garment donations from around the country. We grew so quickly we decided to have our first (virtual) gala at the end of October. We were able to raise $3,000 in one night! In our first six months (from June through December 2020), we FAR surpassed the goals we set during our launch. We collected 2,021 garments from volunteers in over 25 states, distributed over 1,100 garments directly to homeless LGBTQ+ youth living in NYC through our new community partnerships, and raised over $20,000 from individual donations. WOW.

My small New York City apartment was literally overflowing with handmade winter garments, and my heart and spirit were overflowing with love and joy that this little organization was already making such a big difference. Now, in our seventh month of operation, we are continuing to receive and distribute hundreds of garments, planning exciting expansions to our four programs, making new community partnerships with LGBTQ+ organizations throughout the city, and mapping out our growth over the next few years. While Knit the Rainbow was my brain-child, the organization would be nowhere without the help of the amazing people around me and the supportive fiber arts community. The Board of Directors has been with me every step of the way, coming up with new ideas and helping us make new connections.

My quarantine love, Marquez Linder, has served as our resident Graphic Designer and Social Media Manager, helping us to gain hundreds of new followers each month, and my friends and family have continued to share KtR with their networks. I am so extremely grateful for the love and support of the people pushing KtR to new heights, sending us garments and donations, and especially to those closest to me for forcing me to take breaks every now and then (because I am the type who will work day and night).

Courtesy of Austin Rivers

Knit the Rainbow has big plans for the future. We want to eventually expand to serve homeless LGBTQ+ youth all throughout the United States. We want to have an office with staff, a walk-in free pantry for the youth we serve, a place for folx to gather and create together, and so much more. I cannot wait to see where Knit the Rainbow is next year, in 5 years, and in 25 years! If you wanna learn more about KtR or get involved, please check out our website!

Thanks for reading!”

Courtesy of Austin Rivers

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Austin Rivers. You can follow the journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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