On Thursday night, Lady Gaga was rockin’ down Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City. Her foundation, on the other hand, was in a quieter mode on its “Channel Kindness” tour, recognizing a 13-year-old lesbian girl named Savannah and Women of the World, a nonprofit that helps refugee women become self-sufficient.
Savannah garnered fame in May when she came out as a lesbian before her Eagle Mountain Mormon congregation. “No part of me is a mistake,” she told them. “I do not choose to be this way, and it is not a fad.”
Savannah was not allowed to finish her church testimony, but she did make national headlines. [The Salt Lake Tribune is not using her last name, in accordance with her parents’ wishes.]
She is one of eight recipients of the Channel Kindness award from the Born This Way Foundation, which was established by Lady Gaga and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta.
Born This Way focuses on young people, according to the organization’s website, because they are budding problem solvers and effective change-makers who can build a kinder world.
Savannah nabbed the award for her project to give care packages to LGBT homeless teens — many who have been disowned for their sexual orientation. On Thursday, she was joined by two dozen volunteers who helped package blankets, socks, toiletries and other items to be delivered to Youth Futures.
“I always wanted to help homeless people. That’s why I wanted to go on a [Mormon] mission,” Savannah said Thursday. “But you don’t have to go on a mission to help people.”
Savannah no longer attends school in Eagle Mountain. After she came out, she was shunned by teachers and classmates, her mother, Heather Kester , explained.
“Kids were telling her she would go to hell,” Kester said. “And some kids wouldn’t let her sit with them at lunch.”
But Savannah wears a big smile and is upbeat. “I try to look for the positive aspects, rather than the negative ones,” she said.
When she grows up, Savannah said she wants to be a Disney animator. And her mother thinks she will succeed.
“That girl has a brain,” Kester said, “and a lot of drive.”
Born This Way also recognized Salt Lake City-based Women of the World, which helps refugee women become self-sufficient.
Samira Harnish, Women of the World’s founder, said she was bowled over when a Born This Way Foundation director called her as Lady Gaga was preparing to head to Salt Lake City for her “Joanne World Tour.”
Members of the Born This Way Foundation follow Lady Gaga to 40 cities in the U.S. and Canada, meeting with members of each community who are making a difference, said spokeswoman Rachel Martin.
“We wanted to meet some of these amazing women,” Martin said Thursday. “We hope to bring more attention to them that hopefully will allow them to do more good work.”
“It was like I was dreaming,” Harnish said of the recognition. “This is a great honor.”
Volunteers with Harnish’s nonprofit teach refugees English and help them navigate their new environment. Some of her clients have graduated from high school and college and embarked on professional careers. Some have become successful businesswomen.
Each year, Harnish awards “certificates of independence” to clients who have succeeded. In 2010, she gave three certificates, last year it was seven and this year she awarded 20 certificates of independence to Women of the World clients.
Those women then come back to the organization and tell their stories to new arrivals who are struggling to fit into the American culture.
One of the clients, Farida Ghulam Jillani Ruhani Popal from Afghanistan, says she supports the organization for all it does.
“It’s a safe place for women to come, and they show them how to get education and other things,” she said. “They find resources for women, according to their needs.”
Harnish said she sees parallels between Women of the World and Born That Way Foundation.
“We each ensure women stand up with courage, face their fears and solve their own problems.”
Correction: The Born This Way Foundation's tour is called Channel Kindness. A previous version of this story mis-named the tour.