With the holidays officially here, Coca-Cola is finding different ways to recognize the unsung heroes of the season – the rarely acknowledged individuals who make the most wonderful time of the year special for others while making a difference in their communities.

As part of this year’s quest to highlight those making a difference, The Coca-Cola Company and (RED) joined forces with fundraising platform, Omaze, to reward those helping to raise awareness and funds to achieve an AIDS free generation. Five individuals from around the world won an exclusive experience with singer Ed Sheeran after they participated in the annual campaign by (RED) and Coca-Cola to help end AIDS. These lucky fans traveled to iHeartRadio’s Jingle Ball in Los Angeles for a private serenade from Ed Sheeran.

In addition to this year’s winners, countless individuals are also making a difference. One of them is YouTube creator and LGBTQ activist Raymond Braun. This holiday season, Coca-Cola has recognized Raymond as one of its “unsung heroes.”

Raymond is a known media personality, journalist, social influencer and entrepreneur, recently named the Financial Times #1 young global LGBT leader, a Forbes 30 Under 30 “All Star,” one of MTV’s “Social Stars to Watch,” and one of the 100 most influential LGBT people in the world by OUT magazine. He currently serves as a co-host of Catfish: Trolls, a spin-off of the MTV hit television show, Catfish, coming to MTV in 2018.

We caught up with him this week following his experience attending the Coca-Cola (RED) Omaze experience with Sheeran and iHeartRadio’s KISS FM Jingle Ball 2017, to learn more about his passions and the importance of “unsung heroes” in the world.

Tyler Oakley, Jamie Villa, Raymond Braun
Raymond Braun with his friend Tyler Oakley and “unsung hero” Jamie Villa, volunteer for The Trevor Project.

We heard that you nominated your own 'unsung hero' and brought them with you to exclusive Coca-Cola (RED) experience on World AIDS Day.  Who are they and why did you choose them? What do you look for in an “unsung hero?”

I absolutely love the idea of honoring unsung heroes. There are so many people doing incredibly important and meaningful work for the LGBTQ community day in and day out, without any visibility or recognition. These are my heroes. I am grateful for them every day and I strive to honor their commitment and passion with my work.

One of the organizations I most passionately support is The Trevor Project. They are committed to the mental wellbeing and safety of LGBTQ youth and provide a variety of life saving resources to help LGBTQ kids in crisis, including a 24/7 hotline for youth who are contemplating suicide or at risk of self-harm. For many LGBTQ youth who feel isolated and alone, Trevor provides a safe, supportive space where their identity can be affirmed. The Trevor hotline is staffed by volunteers... brave, compassionate, selfless individuals who go through rigorous training and selflessly dedicate themselves to having emotionally intense, high stakes conversations with LGBTQ youth at risk of suicide.

I knew I wanted to honor a volunteer at The Trevor Project because their volunteers literally save lives every day, so I reached out and asked their team to nominate a superstar volunteer who has been involved with Trevor for a while and gone above and beyond in their dedication to the organization and helping others. They immediately nominated Jamie, who has volunteered for Trevor for nearly three years. In addition to speaking to LGBTQ youth on the hotline, Jamie also leads trainings and mentors new volunteers to help them navigate the complexities of these conversations.

When I called her to invite her to Jingle Ball, I was very moved. Jamie said she had never before been honored for her volunteer work. I am grateful to Coca-Cola and (RED) for giving me this opportunity to change that!

Raymond Braun, Ed Sheeran and Kyle Krieger
Raymond Braun poses with a selfie with Ed Sheeran and Kyle Krieger.

We know you just had the opportunity to attend the Coca-Cola (RED) Ed Sheeran experience and Jingle Ball on World AIDS Day in Los Angeles. What was the experience like?

It was so much fun and also really meaningful! First of all, I was so happy to see Jamie having such a great time. She works so hard and dedicates so much of herself to others that I loved seeing her be able to unwind, kick back, and have a blast. I looked over at one moment and saw her dancing and singing her heart out. I know she felt appreciated and that was my whole goal with the “unsung hero” initiative.

The Ed Sheeran experience was surreal. He’s such a talented singer, and I loved that he lent his voice to helping raise money for the important work of (RED).

I got to experience the night with two of my closest friends: Tyler Oakley and Kyle Krieger. We were dancing and singing and it was so cool to see so many of my favorite songs performed live.

You’ve been a strong advocate for the LGBTQ community.  Why are you so passionate about the community and what progress have you seen in the recent years?

I grew up in a small, conservative town in Northwest Ohio. Growing up, I didn’t see anyone visible in my community who was openly LGBTQ who I could identify with and connect to. As I became more confident in my identity, I wanted to reach back and help those who are still in the closet or struggling to accept themselves by being more visible myself and also working to help empower other people to come out, share their stories, and impact change.

Raymond Braun, Tyler Oakley and Kyle Krieger at Jingle Ball
Raymond Braun, Tyler Oakley and Kyle Krieger at Jingle Ball in Los Angeles.

You started activism at a pretty young age. Do you have any advice for those that want to start making a difference in their community?

This might sound overly simple, but I believe that sharing stories and being visible is one of the most critical ways to make a difference and impact change. When people know someone who identifies as LGBTQ, they are more likely to support LGBTQ rights, so we need to continue uplifting the voices of our diverse community and working to improve communities and culture so people feel safe, comfortable, and supported to come out. I’ve spoken about this before - I call it the “rainbow ripple effect.” When you tell your story, you oftentimes then inspire other people to tell their own, which helps people who are struggling know that they’re not alone.

What’s next for you? Any current or upcoming projects/initiatives you are working on?

I’m very excited about my new show which will be coming out on MTV next year. I also have several projects in the works that will likely go public in 2018... and I can’t wait for you to see them.

While I can’t share specifics yet, what I will say is this: I am passionate about utilizing entertainment, media, and technology to create positive social change. I am always trying to think about new ways to create and scale opportunities for LGBTQ teens to find support, community, and entertainment online so they can grow up feeling affirmed and proud of who they are. There is an urgency behind this work because so many kids still feel isolated, lonely, and like they don’t fit in. Helping to create a safe, creative, supportive, expressive place for them to explore their identity and build community can literally mean the difference between a kid growing up with self esteem and a strong sense of self -- or not. I want every LGBTQ kid to grow up feeling affirmed, confident, and empowered, because a generation of LGBTQ people who are confident, affirmed, and able to express their best selves will help accelerate even more positive change and impact in society.