Nonprofit honors student for work at YES Institute

Joseph Zolobczuk’s first day at work wasn’t what he expected.

Fifteen years ago, he arrived at the office of Project YES, looking for a job.

Project YES – now known as the YES Institute – is a nonprofit, based at 5275 Sunset Dr., that seeks to educate and inform others on topics involving gender and sexual orientation.

According to the project’s founder, Martha Fugate, Zolobczuk expected to arrive at a big organization teeming with staff members rushing around the office. Instead, there were carpets that needed to be pulled out.

“The first day he walked into the office, I was on the floor pulling up a disgusting carpet,” Fugate said.

Fugate told Zolobczuk that the income he would be receiving “is not good.” But Zolobczuk, a 33-year-old graduate student in the School of Education’s Community and Social Change program, said he didn’t care about pay.

“Well the work isn’t much fun either,” Fugate told Zolobczuk. “This is your job. This is gonna be our office.”

The hard work eventually paid off.

On March 1, Zolobczuk learned that he had been chosen as the first student recipient of the Silver Medallion Award.

The award is given by Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews (MCCJ), a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating intolerance. Past recipients include football icon Don Shula, Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, and UM President Donna E. Shalala.

Zolobczuk currently serves as the director of education, production and research at the YES Institute. He came out as gay after growing up in a Catholic household in Buffalo, N.Y.

“It was really hard on my mom and dad,” Zolobczuk said. “It took a couple of years letting them learn about it and giving them some space to figure things out.”

Zolobczuk said that his sexual orientation is now a non-issue with his family, thanks in part to what he has learned through working at the YES Institute.

“I think the work we do at YES caught MCCJ’s attention and that’s why this award happened,” Zolobczuk said.

According to Rachel Sottile, the YES Institute’s executive director,  Zolobczuk’s recognition came as no surprise.

“So much has to get done behind the scenes, so things go seamlessly when we’re doing courses or presentations,” Sottile said. “And he makes that happen. I call him the anchor of the organization.”