"You are to be celebrated."
Kaelana Dauber graciously told her life story while recovering from having her wisdom teeth removed. In one text message, she apologized for talking like a "goonies character" during the initial interview, which needed to be rescheduled due to her pain and discomfort.
Overcoming adversity is nothing new in her life. Neither is Kaelana's infectious positive attitude while encouraging others around her to be true to themselves. "Being your authentic self is the most important thing in your life," she stated. No more convincing words to live by.
Kaelana is now a graduate from Western Connecticut State University. She holds dual degrees in Justice and Law as well as Interdisciplinary Studies, with a focus on Social Work and Communication. Her diploma displays her full name - the end result of years of commitment and sacrifice.
Kaelana Dauber also deserves a diploma in courage and strength.
"It is a miracle I even graduated," Kaelana said. As a freshman, she was hit by a car going 60 mph in a school safety zone. While dragging herself from the middle of the road, she realized the force of the impact resulted in the car's license plate being embedded in her leg. Hospitalized for two weeks, Kaelana was initially told she may not walk again given significant nerve damage.
"When I was in the hospital, I was doing my homework," Kaelana shared. She still made the Dean's list, despite also suffering from a traumatic brain injury, the effects of which still impact her today.
During her last year at Western, Kaelana's gallbladder ruptured, requiring immediate surgery. She also needed two hernias repaired, which left her body scarred. "We have this idea of beauty and what we should look like," she mused. "Accept yourself."
Accepting yourself may have come easy for Kaelana Dauber, but expressing herself was not. While in the 5th grade, she came to the realization that she was a lesbian. She recalls that her sex education courses did not teach students how to identify themselves as a "queer youth" nor did they include discussions of LGBTQ issues. "I had to educate myself," she affirmed.
At one point, Kaelana took to Google and searched, "how to have safe sex as a lesbian." She told her very conservative family she was bisexual as a way to please them.
She explained, "It is hard to come out. You are going to be hated by a large percentage of the world because of your authentic self." This inner conflict led to Kaelana at one point contemplating taking her own life. Sexual identity is "not something I chose."
For over a decade, Kaelana kept this part of her identity to herself. It was not until the COVID-19 pandemic, in November of 2020, that she decided to come out to her family. Kaelana explained that she identifies as queer, noting, "Being queer is an identification." "Queer" is an encompassing term, referring to sexualities and gender identities "outstanding to regular societal norms" or "which challenge societal norms." Although the word "queer" has been used as a slur, many in the LGBTQIA+ community have reclaimed it and use it as an umbrella term for those who are not heterosexual and/or are not cisgender. She gives credit to a professor at Western Connecticut with assisting her in understanding the full breath of this word and its meaning.
While freely expressing yourself is more common for Kaelana's generation, she acknowledged it may come with a negative stigma from those closest to you.
The reaction from particular family members was harsh.
"Why can't you be normal?" her mother asked. Kaelana let it go for a couple of weeks and her mother eventually apologized. "My normal is not your normal. No one's normal is the same," she quickly pointed out. Another relative posted homophobic and transphobic slurs on social media.
Kaelana is the oldest of 11 siblings. "I have ten younger biological siblings who look up to me," she stated, with other half siblings on her father's side.
Kaelana found comfort in her siblings' reactions when she came out, as they were "100% supportive" and accepting. In fact, some expressed to her that they sensed she was a lesbian even before she spoke with them. "A lot of my personality comes from my siblings," she shared. "My siblings are my fiercest fighters. Everyone is completely different."
Her best friend is her brother James. "I keep him calm," she said. James was the first person she came out to, and his accepting and loving response allowed her to see hope and changed the narrative as she began telling her other siblings.
Kaelana also credits her brother Sean for always being there for her and filling in the place of her own father. "He is the best male role model in my life," she smiled.
After Kaelana came out, her "chosen family," which is her best friend's family, took her in and loved and accepted her for simply who she was and her genuine self. Having a chosen family to love is especially important for youth involved in the LGBTQIA+ community and foster care system. "There is never a shortage of love, and you can always make more when you need it," Kaelana pointed out.
Kaelana is now engaged and plans to marry her partner, Penny, in 2025 after they both finish graduate school. They started dating in March 2020 and Kaelana proposed while in Hawaii in 2021. Penny is a trans woman, with Kaelana being her biggest supporter.
As a Transitional Aged Youth (TAY) Kaelana continues to receive supports from the Department. "Ryan Shove is a great DCF worker," she stated. Kaelana was quick to point out the complexities of working for DCF. "He really does try," she stated as she expressed gratitude for Ryan's ongoing efforts to support her.
Kaelana has a message for other youth involved with the Department. "Be yourself, your most authentic self, only if it is safe," she advised. "It is okay to come out, it is okay to be happy, it is okay to let yourself be happy." She does feel current state law makes Connecticut a state where those in the LGBTQIA+ community can feel safe with their rights being protected.
"You are to be celebrated."
This fall, Kaelana will speak with other LGBTQIA+ youth as part of a program put on by the SUN Scholars - a support she used during college. Kaelana pointed out that staff member Yamia Gibson was particularly helpful to her as she partnered with Kaelana to find behavioral health supports and other services in the community while navigating college life.
Kaelana aspires to be a Guardian Ad Litem, with a clear understanding of which types of individuals she desires to support. She will advocate for those most in need "with passion and whole heart, and she has already received acceptance letters from the law schools at Cornell University, the University of New Haven, as well as the Criminal Justice program at Georgia State University.
Kaelana wishes to express her gratitude to the Department of Children and Families and Olivia Dudley from Waterbury Youth Services, who assisted her with obtaining school materials. She also thanks Dora Poma from the Connecticut Alliance of Foster and Adoptive Families (CAFAF), as she has been a huge support during her college years. Kaelana's graduation photo was taken by Justin Sprague Photography. Justin is also a member of the LGBTQIA+ community and one of many allies to Kaelana. Lastly, she wishes to thank her foster parents, Doc and Marcia, for the years of care they provided to her.
Whatever Kaelana Dauber decides to do with her life, she will conduct herself in the most genuine manner, true to herself. This is simply who she is, and she will never change.
"We as people are made to be celebrated," affirmed Kaelana Dauber.
We celebrate you, Kaelana Dauber, and all your accomplishments. Most of all, we celebrate you for being your authentic self.