Student’s donation to Planned Parenthood results in community controversy, teen empowerment

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A recent donation by a Ponte Vedra High School student to Planned Parenthood continues to cause debate within the community, while also empowering local teens to stand up for what they believe is right. 

Senior Matt Gibson decided to make the $6,000 donation on behalf of the school after winning the Mr. Fintastic talent show on Saturday, Jan. 20. The fourth annual charity event consisted of 17 Ponte Vedra male students competing to be the funniest and most entertaining act. The event was produced by the Senior Women Club, a group of over 100 Ponte Vedra female seniors. According to club officer Sydney Burnett, approximately 600 people attended.

Each year, the event winner is awarded the ability to donate the proceeds to a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization of his choice. The participants of the event chose their desired organizations in November when planning for Mr. Fintastic began. Gibson chose Planned Parenthood at the time. Burnett said the Senior Women officers made the school aware of these choices, including Gibson’s, and no flags were raised.

Also at that time, each of the event participants decided which school club they wanted to represent for the talent show. Gibson elected to represent the school’s Young Feminists Club, an organization that he said works to raise awareness of the true intent of the feminist movement. He chose Planned Parenthood because he said the organization best represents the ideals of the recently created Ponte Vedra club. He also chose the organization because he said he believes Planned Parenthood doesn’t always receive the attention and support it needs.

“It was a way to give it [Planned Parenthood] support that typically would never happen, especially in a place like Ponte Vedra,” said Gibson.

Reaction from the community

A few days after the talent show, longtime Ponte Vedra resident Jeanie Leapley, whose two sons attend Ponte Vedra High School, received a letter from another parent who informed her about the donation. Leapley said a small groundswell of parents formed in opposition to the donation, and she was encouraged to write a letter to the school on the group’s behalf.

Leapley wrote that letter Wednesday, Jan. 24, to school principal Dr. Fred Oberkehr, the Senior Women Club's sponsor Jennifer Lee, the Ponte Vedra High School staff and St. Johns County School District.

“I am stunned and saddened, shocked and beyond upset to hear that my sons’ school, Ponte Vedra High, held an event, Mr Fintastic, this past Saturday night, where the proceeds went to Planned Parenthood,” wrote Leapley. “How this mistake occurred does not matter, the matter is that it should never happen again.”

Leapley wrote that she doesn’t believe Planned Parenthood should be considered a charity, nor should parents of Ponte Vedra be subject to supporting the organization. She noted that the charity’s name would imply “that all children are ‘planned,’” and she encouraged those receiving the letter to consider what life would be like without those they love, who were perhaps not “planned.” She ultimately felt strongly that the community’s money should not go to the organization, and she wanted other parents to be made aware.

In a conversation with the Recorder, Leapley said she became pregnant when she was 19, an experience that has resulted in her having strong feelings about abortion.

“I learned through that pregnancy that it really wasn’t a choice,” she said. “It was either I choose to become someone who takes another’s life, or I give this child for adoption.”

Leapley’s child was ultimately adopted, she said, and now that child is a successful engineer living in upstate New York with her husband and two girls.

“She’s my reminder every day,” Leapley said. “There’s this person that God created, and the baby is not in a convenient place at the time, in somebody’s womb that doesn’t want the baby. But that doesn’t mean that the world doesn’t want the baby and that the world doesn’t need the baby.”

After writing her letter to the school and district, Leapley said she decided to post it to Facebook, which she now says she partly regrets. The social media post resulted in a flurry of discussion, some in support of Leapley’s words, and others strongly opposed.

Students take a stand

When Burnett initially heard about Leapley’s letter, she didn’t think anything would change in regard to the Planned Parenthood donation. But then she learned that Leapley had received a response from Lee, who said the donation to Planned Parenthood could not go through and that the proceeds would instead benefit the Women’s March.

Burnett, the other officers for the Senior Women’s Club and Gibson subsequently spoke with Lee, who directed them to Oberkehr. Burnett said the Ponte Vedra principal told the students that there were concerns about the legal nonprofit status of Planned Parenthood and whether it was truly eligible for the proceeds. In a letter obtained by the Recorder from Oberkehr to the parents that was sent later in the week, those concerns were confirmed to be true.

“I was just mad that the school was so quick to jump away from the issue and not support Matt for what he believed in, whether it would have been Planned Parenthood or a pro-life organization or whatever,” said Burnett. “We would have supported him with whatever decision he made.”

With those emotions in mind, Burnett subsequently decided to post a Facebook response to Leapley’s letter on Thursday, Jan. 25.

“I am writing today to those who have swept this issue under the rug, to those who have belittled the opinions and hard work of an outstanding group of seniors at Ponte Vedra High School, and to those who have had an opinion on a controversial issue” she wrote. “We are not misinformed teens, we are not uneducated on politics and controversial topics, and we did not make ‘mistakes’ while planning this event.

“Instead of scolding Matt for choosing Planned Parenthood as his charity, we must celebrate him,” Burnett continued. “It is very rare, especially in this community, that we get the chance to find a voice for what we believe in. Matt understands, the Senior Women officers understand and now the community must understand that it’s time to respect the choices of others, no matter age, no matter viewpoint and no matter controversy … I am a young woman at Ponte Vedra High that will see this donation goes through to Planned Parenthood. Not because I am pro-choice, but because I am pro-respect.”

The following morning on Friday, Jan. 26, a group of Ponte Vedra students showed up to school wearing black in peaceful protest of the recent events. By the end of the day, Burnett said Oberkehr called the involved students down to his office and informed them that the proceeds would indeed support Planned Parenthood, as long as Gibson was ok with it. The talent show winner confirmed his choice, and the $6,000 donation was made final. Students raised an additional $1,000, Gibson said, that will support the organization.

The Ponte Vedra senior noted that the donation will not go toward Planned Parenthood’s abortion services and will instead support the organization’s health care services and sexuality education. Christina Noce, a media spokesperson for the organization, said the donation is being sent to the Planned Parenthood national organization and confirmed that donations support the aforementioned services outside of abortion. St. Johns County School District spokeswoman Christina Langston also confirmed that the donation will support these services, not the organization’s abortion services.

 

Moving forward

In the letter from the school to parents, Oberkehr said the winner’s choice was identified as a legitimate, legal 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization after further investigation.

In the future, the Ponte Vedra principal said administration will “ensure that designated charities are well communicated to the entire school community several weeks prior to the event.”

Speaking on behalf of some parents, Leapley believes this is exactly the transparency that needs to be implemented to the charity event moving forward. In retrospect, she feels badly that her letter offended or hurt any of the students involved, and she wishes that she had acknowledged their hard work. She said she sent apology letters to both Gibson and Burnett.

Yet at the same time, Leapley believes her letter raised productive discussion and awareness of the donation. Several parents, she said, sent her messages of appreciation for her words, and a handful of others withdrew their donations from the school.

Burnett said the end result provided students with comfort knowing that their opinions matter to the school’s administration and that their decisions are respected.

“It’s about supporting the students of Ponte Vedra, not about creating a pro-life/pro-choice discussion,” she noted. “It just showed that we as students are informed and are intelligent enough to make our own decisions.”

Gibson echoed those sentiments, stating that he’s learned not to stand down when times get tough.

“I think when all this happened with the school, we were never trying to fight for our political views,” he said. “We were fighting for the right to respect the choice that was made. That was made very clearly when we had so many students of many different backgrounds who were willing to put their differences aside to all come together for this fight to respect the choice.

“There’s no way this would have been possible without the help of all the students coming together, especially the Senior Women officers,” he added. “It was that teamwork that made this all happen.”

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