His personal journey has led to his professional passion, and Matt Liberatore couldn't be happier.
Liberatore, now 35, saw a therapist off and on throughout his 20s to help work through a variety of life changes and issues including coming out.
"I always had a love affair with the [therapy] profession and had a knack at being extremely self-introspective," he said. "It was a seed planted and something I thought [might happen], 'In another life.'"
Liberatore formally came out as a sophomore at the University of Illinois, anchored by his parents' long-standing advice to "always be myself and follow whatever path I wanted," he said.
Still, when Liberatore first told them that he was gay, he admits that his parents were "challenged" by the news. "They had to do a reboot and think of my life in different terms than maybe they planned," he said. "We debated and argued at first, but am proud to say that they transformed more than I have seen any set of parents. They are excited about the day when I bring 'the one' home. I can hold hands, kiss, and be affectionate in front of them. They truly are my role models."
Liberatore, the youngest of five siblings (four boys), earned a clarinet performance degree in college, opting away from the electrician industry that his three brothers and father now work in. He was a clarinet instructor and personal trainer during 2000-20005, and then became the controller of the family business, Liberatore Electric, during 2005-2010 while also teaching clarinet.
While running his parents' company, Liberatore knew the job was not his true calling. In fact, he now admits that he one day woke up, probably in 2006, "and realized for me to be truly happy for the next 30 to 40 years I had to have a career where I was helping people and changing lives," he said.
So Liberatore did online research, "and realized that I could go back and get my community or school-counseling master's degree and [therapy-type work] still could be done 'in this life.'"
He left the family business and pursued a career as a counselor, and three years later, Liberatore received his school counseling masters degree and a licensed professional counselor license.
For the past three years, Liberatore has been a local, suburban high school counselor, "and I absolutely love it," he said. "I truly am one of the few lucky individuals to have found their true passion. My eyes pop open in the morning and I am energized to get to work and interact with the students. I leave work after a day at the high school and am fired-up and in the greatest mood. I feel like this component is my greatest asset in regards to friends and relationships.
"I love what I do and it shows in my personality. I love the career in itself because every student comes in like a blank canvas and your individual interactions help to shape them. I am fortunate that I get to do social, emotional, academic, and college career counseling, so the day is always changing. I may have a day that is super focused on career exploration and college searching, and then the next day be filled with social/emotional counseling helping students battle anxiety, depression, or normal day-to-day stress."
And yes, Liberatore is out at school.
"I talk about friends, dates, and interactions without ever changing pronouns," he said. "I figure, if a school doesn't want me because of my sexual orientation, then I don't want the school. I can say without hesitation that the school I am at is extremely accepting. My co-workers are amazing and I wouldn't change them for anything. They are my support system and have helped me through difficult times, and I like to think I have been there for them as well. I have an extremely intense, upbeat attitude which I think helps for people to be motivated and see me as a driven, good-hearted person."
As for the students, well, they learned for sure that Liberatore is gay when he became the adult moderator for the school's Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA).
"I guess that let the cat out of the bag, so to say," he said, laughing. "I came out to the GSA students personally last year when it was announced I was taking over the group, and they were extremely excited to have their first openly gay adviser."
There are about 20 active members in his school's GSA, with 10 gay students, 10 straight students and one transgender.
"I like to say that I am extremely involved," with the GSA, Liberatore said. "We have brought in six speakers [including] the head of Safe-Schools Illinois, a transgender female, a lesbian activist, and most recently, a straight married couple that is active with PFLAG with a gay son. In addition to speakers, we have had group discussions about marriage equality and other current [topics.]"
Liberatore, who is single, is an imposing, impressive figure, standing 6'1" and weighing 225 pounds, with body fat that fluctuates between 4 percent and 8 percent. He certainly has come a long way from age 19, when he topped out at 270 pounds, with a 42-inch waist.
"I did the whole shedding-the-pounds as I came out," Liberatore said. "It was exciting because my body type is one that I add muscle and lose fat with ease. But I also put on fat very easy so I am constantly being conscientious and watching what I eat. I have to say, at 35, I am in the best shape of my life."
And yes, students do notice the muscled counselor walking the halls.
"I do get comments, but it always knocks me off guard because I am just me," he said. "It definitely is exciting when I can tell my attitude toward fitness motivates students. I have had students tell me that they started going to the gym or started eating healthy because of something I said. That is highly rewarding.
"I try to relate to teens by trying to not talk down to them. They have their own dreams and aspirations, separate of their parents, and I try to always tap into that underlying want. I will often do career/college planning sessions with the parents and then an additional one without them to try and really understand my students. I then try to utilize my counseling skills to meet in the middle or help one party understand where the other is coming from. I also like to be real, which, to me, is appropriately sharing personal experiences when they relate to what a student is going through. As a counselor you never take over the conversation and make it about you, but sharing your own perspective or life experience can be an extremely valuable tool."
Liberatore also is the school's adult moderator of the National Honor Society, which has focused on various service projects. For instance, a book drive that brought in more than 500 books that were donated to a low-income school in Chicago. Liberatore's school also had a school-supply drive for another school-in-need, which produced five large boxes of school supplies, along with $200 for the school.
"My goal is to finish my second masters in educational leadership to be a principal this summer and keep counseling for the next five or 10 years," he said. "Eventually, I see myself in the role of assistant principal of student support services at a high school. I am also in the midst of getting my clinical license and very well could see having a small, private counseling practice."
Liberatore has played flag football, volleyball and dodge ball in the predominantly gay Chicago Metropolitan Sports Association (CMSA) for several years. He also has completed seven triathlons and will be riding 200 miles this summer in the 10th annual Ride For AIDS Chicago.
The Ride is just another way Liberatore is giving back, just as he did this spring in support of Fred Says, which helps HIV-positive teens.
"I wanted to make a difference, and for the past seven years, I have been doing humanitarian builds through Habitat International," he said. "I first volunteered to build a house in Guatemala for a week. The build was so successful that they submitted my name for leadership training. Since, I have recruited, organized, and led builds to Chile, India, Hungary, Kenya and next summer in Nepal.
"I decided to take this summer off to focus on my studies, but quickly knew that I had to satisfy my philanthropic need in another way. I have watched the Ride and attended fundraisers for the past two years and, deep down, because of my triathlon background knew this would be something I wanted to be a part of.
"I think the Ride will signify something exciting and a new chapter of giving."
Liberatore's fundraising goal is $4,000 to benefit the Test Positive Aware Network (TPAN).
"Matt brings an energy and excitement to the Ride that is infectious," said Richard Cordova, director of athletic events for TPAN, which produces the annual bicycle ride. "As a high school guidance counselor and the sponsor of his school's GSA, he is working to create a generation of confident, compassionate, and inspired leaders who share his philanthropic views. He's a leader in the community, and Ride for AIDS Chicago is richer because of his involvement."
Liberatore has two tattoos that truly tell the tale of his amazing, roller-coaster life. He has a large cherry blossom on his right oblique with six flowersfive in the respective colors of the country flags worldwide where he has helped build houses. The sixth is the colors of his parents' birthstone, "to remind me that all this drive and determination came from somewhere. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for their unconditional love and support," he said. There also are three Asian symbols alongside the cherry blossom which mean, "The way of life is courage and inner-truth."
"I love this tattoo and there is room so that if I do additional builds I can add more flowers later," he said.
On his left inner bicep, Liberatore has a tribal-looking tattoo. But, he said, "as you look closer you see that it is a person swimming, biking and running all superimposed over one another. I got that one after I completed my first triathlon to signify my ability to never give up."
To support Liberatore's fundraising for the Ride For AIDS Chicago, benefitting the Test Positive Aware Network (TPAN), go to rideforaids.kintera.org/mliberatore .