When Avi Newlyn Pacheco looks back on his most painful memories, he doesn’t believe in holding on to hatred or negative feelings.
“I always look for the good that came out of it,” he said.
Pacheco, a 22-year-old southwest Las Vegas resident, grew up in San Diego and was just 16 when his mother died after suffering a stroke. He and his younger sister were left in the custody of their father — whom they didn’t have a relationship with — in Honolulu. Pacheco said he was suicidal during that time.
And despite being in a loving family during his childhood, “growing up, I didn’t have any adult figures who were also queer to look up to,” he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal during a recent interview.
Now, Pacheco has a national platform to use to help others. He’s among 13 youth ambassadors for 2020 for the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Youth Well-Being Program.
It’s the second year Pacheco has been an ambassador for the nonprofit, which says on its website it’s the largest national LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) civil rights organization. Youth ambassadors sign a two-year contract and, each year, half the class of ambassadors finishes up and new ones start.
Pacheco said the overall message he’s trying to preach is self-acceptance — “being able to own who you are and embrace all those things that make you different.”
Pacheco, who legally changed his name as an adult, grew up as Sopi Pouvave. He’s the second-youngest of six children raised by a single mother who was originally from Western Samoa, which was renamed in 1997 to the Independent State of Samoa.
He moved to Las Vegas from Hawaii more than two years ago in order to rekindle a relationship with his siblings. He lives in the Spring Valley area just down the street from his older sister, who’s a single mother of three children.
Pacheco works at Adriano Goldschmied, a designer jeans company. And he said he got heavily involved in Las Vegas’ queer and drag scenes.
He speaks at events and conferences — typically, every couple of months. “I’m always open to speaking wherever anyone will listen,” Pacheco said, and he particularly enjoys speaking at schools.
Pacheco’s story is an example of how to take “really dark, troubling circumstances and turn it around” to become a source of strength for yourself and others, HRC Foundation’s Youth Well-Being Program director Vincent Pompeii told the Review-Journal during a phone interview.
Heather Anderson, who was Pacheco’s high school English teacher in San Diego, told the Review-Journal during a phone interview she’s “kind of like a mama bear” for Pacheco. She now lives in Wisconsin and keeps in close contact with him.
Anderson — who has been teaching for more than 20 years — described her former student as honest, sincere and giving.
“First and foremost, Avi has an absolute heart of gold,” she said, adding he’s driven and has a passion for life in a way that’s uncommon among most youth.
“His life experiences, I think, would have set most people back,” Anderson said, but he chose to use them as a catalyst to help others. “I find that to be admirable and true to his character.”
Youth ambassadors program
HRC Foundation launched the Youth Well-Being Program in 2013.
“It was really important to me that we provided an opportunity for youth voice to be engaged in the work,” Pompeii said.
Each year, LBGTQ youth — ranging in age from 13 to 22 — can apply to become an ambassador. Pompeii declined to disclose the number of applicants for this year’s program.
Among applicants, there’s “really heartfelt and challenging stories that they’ve had to overcome,” Pompeii said, and a “sense of resilience by way of activism.”
The program looks for youth who have leadership experience, such as starting a gay-pride weekend in their small town or talking with their school board about LGBTQ student needs, Pompeii said.
Pacheco was introduced to the program at the organization’s 2018 Time To THRIVE conference in Orlando, Florida.
“Once I heard all of their stories, I felt so empowered to make a bigger difference on a grander scale,” he said.
From tragedy to advocacy
Starting in second grade, Pacheco told his mother he wanted to become a doctor, and he was earning straight A’s in school.
Pacheco was raised in a loving family, but one that was also homophobic as a result of religious beliefs, according to a draft for a speech he delivered in mid-February at HRC Foundation’s Time To THRIVE national conference in Washington, D.C.
If he showed any sign of femininity, it “resulted in discipline or threats saying that I’d be beaten up or kicked out if I ended up gay,” he wrote in the draft, so he took steps to blend in.
While Pacheco was a 15-year-old sophomore at Health Sciences High and Middle College in San Diego, his mother suffered a stroke. He and his younger sister took care of their mother and guided her rehabilitation.
During that time, “a state of depression took over and with constant suicidal thoughts, I didn’t believe I’d make it through the year,” Pacheco wrote in the draft speech.
When Anderson was grading papers, she used to put Pacheco’s paper on the bottom of the pile because she wanted to finish grading on a high note.
One day, she was sitting on her patio in San Diego grading about 160 papers. When she got to Pacheco’s paper, she discovered it was a suicide letter.
“I remember my heart just falling out from beneath me,” Anderson said.
She wondered if it was too late. She started making phone calls and when she got in touch with Pacheco, he opened up and shared what was going on.
“He knew he could share his story or truth with me,” Anderson said. “That’s when our mentorship and friendship really started to blossom.”
School employees coordinated a fund so Pacheco and his siblings would have their basic needs, such as groceries, taken care of for the rest of the school year.
“But even more than that, they made sure school was a safe zone for me — the first space where I was free to challenge the ideals I was taught to believe,” Pacheco wrote in the draft speech. “I had huge Polynesian hair that came down to my waist, which I always pulled back or braided around family, constantly conscious of my mannerisms so that I wouldn’t seem too feminine. But at school, I’d let my hair down and walked like the diva I knew I was.”
‘A huge struggle for me’
When Pacheco was 16, his mother died. He and his younger sister were taken away from their older siblings and placed in the custody of their father — who had been absent their entire lives — in Honolulu.
“My mom passing was sort of treated like something we needed to forget,” he said. “It was a huge struggle from me.”
While a high-schooler in Hawaii, Pacheco was in a senior project elective class and did his project on drag queens. “That’s kind of what got me into advocacy work,” he said.
Pacheco got connected with Life Foundation, a nonprofit HIV/AIDS prevention group in Hawaii that also provides services to those affected. He met a social worker, Gia Pacheco, who’s also a drag artist known as Gia Versace. She let Pacheco live with her.
They created The Beauty Blossom Workshop, “a sisterhood group dedicated to uniting and educating trans youth in Hawaii,” Pacheco wrote in the draft speech.
Pacheco developed his own drag persona, Aviana Versace. And he got involved with public speaking.
Anderson was in attendance when he gave his first speech — to a group of San Diego students in 2018.
“Kids were so touched,” she said. “That’s when it really hit me: ‘This is exactly what he needs to be doing.’”