When Michael Berlucchi was a student at First Colonial High School in the 1990s, he said, he was harassed because he was gay.
Berlucchi felt isolated, and at times ashamed and embarrassed, but he didn’t speak out.
Now the president of Hampton Roads Pride, Berlucchi said he regrets that he didn’t do more before he graduated in 1998. That is one reason he was so impressed by an event Monday night at Cox High.
A few hundred people filed into the auditorium for an assembly organized by the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. The group promoted the idea of inclusion, or creating more acceptance of all people.
”You’ll be rewarded for doing it,” he added.
The assembly was previously scheduled for early December but was pushed back after objections arose to a club holding such a rally during school hours.
Cox senior Wesley McKee, the alliance president, said holding the event at night worked out for the best, by allowing people other than students to attend.
McKee hopes those who showed up learned more about her group.
“We always strive to educate others,” McKee said after the assembly.
They call themselves the "Barry Boys." The alumni talked about what the center meant to them.
"When you get here, you learned what it was really all about, and you didn't really appreciate it until you were gone, you really understood what you had gotten," said Greg Matthews, Class of '77.
"It's fantastic," said Scott Flynn, Class of '76. " I got into sports, soccer, and it really motivated me a lot."
David Kight , Class of '76 said: "It was great. I loved this place. It was, you're going to learn this today. I would have gone to Maury and flunked out of high school. It was great. I loved this place."
Dave Maltby, Class of '65 feels the same way. "And I had a wonderful time here and I don't regret one day of it," he said.
Mike Forbes, Class of '74 concurred. "It's just great people, they truly care about what they're doing," he said, adding, "I wouldn't change a thing."
School and community leaders say, it's a formula that works.
"Well I think if I was going to distil it into just three words, it would be faith, hope and love," said Chuck McPhillips, chairman of the Barry Robinson Center Trust.
State Delegate Joe Lindsey is impressed. "I absolutely love it because I know people that have transitioned through the program and who are doing quite well in society.," he said.
And there's still an on-going effort to pay for much needed capital improvements to many of the buildings at this 83 year old facility, so that they can keep doing what they've always done, improving the lives of children.
Berlucchi and Sgt. Shelly Meister, the Virginia Beach Police Department’s LGBT liaison, were among the speakers at the roughly hourlong event. Like Berlucchi, Meister said she regrets not speaking up more for people in the community when she was at high school in New Jersey.
Meister offered a message for anyone who might tease or harass a person because of sexual orientation or gender identity.
“You never truly know what is going on in a person’s life,” Meister said.
During the assembly, alliance members answered questions from fellow students. They said cyberbullying and social media taunts cause pain. But so can hearing a phrase like something being called “so gay,” even if the person saying that meant no harm.
It’s best not to respond to attacks with attacks of your own, the group said. They offered another way to fight bullying.
“The only way to kill it is with kindness,” student Shawn Murphy said.
Students at Cox started the alliance last school year with about 10 students, said Victoria Sachar-Milosevich, a special education teacher and the group’s faculty adviser. About 55 attended its most recent meeting.
Berlucchi said he started speaking up about seven years ago, when he was living in Miami. He returned to Virginia Beach about that time and decided to become more of an advocate.
Back then, the region was not as accepting as Miami, Berlucchi said. Things have changed, he added.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Look at what we saw tonight.”