Judy Shepard speaks at Women United luncheon

Well-known activist and author Judy Shepard was in Orlando Wednesday to spread a message about the power of one voice.

Shepard was the keynote speaker at the Heart of Florida United Way’s 12th annual Women United Luncheon. She spoke about how she used her voice and turned personal tragedy into a crusade for justice.

“Everyone has a passion whether it’s about the gay community or immigrants or child abuse or hunger or homelessness. Everyone has a passion that speaks to their hearts and they just need to take the step and raise their voice,” Shepard said. “Join an organization. Run for office. Be a part of politics.”

In 1998 Shepard’s 21 year-old son, Matthew Shepard, was tied to a fence and beaten to death by two men because he was gay. Now, Shepard fights for equal rights for the LGBTQ community and a safer community for everyone. She even spearheaded legislation which expanded the federal hate crime law to include crimes against a person based on gender and sexual orientation.

“Even 20 years later the grief is just right under the surface but the message is this is not the country we want to live in. we want our children, ourselves to feel safe and secure no matter where we are. Whether it’s at work or at home or out having a good time,” Shepard said. “There’s no sense in any kind of violence. We know that hate crimes have gone up exponentially and there is a way to combat this. If we just do it together. If we just have a message and a will to do it together.”

Heart of Florida United Way President and CEO Jeff Hayward said he heard Shepard speak at an event a year ago and knew he wanted her to come talk to Women United to inspire them.

“What I hope the women walk away today [with] is realizing the potential they have not only acting alone in voting and getting active in the community but imagine the power of women united coming together and even speaking out,” Hayward said. “If even 10 percent of these women started calling their elected officials and demanding change around education and homelessness and issues that affect them in our community we could change the landscape of this community.”