Long before she was a singer–songwriter with 16 Grammy nominations and a Tony award-winning composer, Cyndi Lauper was a 19-year-old runaway just trying to survive.
“At 19, it’s hard to navigate in the world,” Lauper, now 64, tells PEOPLE. “I couch-surfed and stayed at youth hostels and finally went to a homeless shelter for runaways. So I’ve seen the fringes.”
When she returned to her hometown of New York City to make her way as a singer, Lauper struggled at first to earn enough money to get by. While she eventually found fame with her ’80s albums She’s So Unusual and True Colors, she never forgot what those early days were like.
“My time in that youth shelter was where I saw these kids who suffered so much,” the “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” singer says. “The world brands them as perverse, dirty, outcasts. They villanize these people and they don’t deserve it.”
RELATED VIDEO: Cyndi Lauper Opens up about Her Battle with Psoriasis: One Doctor Said ‘Wow, I Haven’t Seen Anything That Bad in Years!’
Over three decades later, in 2008, Lauper started the True Colors Fund, which works to end homelessness among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, who make up 40 percent of the approximately 1.6 million kids on the street.
“These kids from this community are running away from the fear of rejection or violence,” the Kinky Boots lyricist explains. “They’re disenfranchised when they come out to their parents, their friends, their family, their school and their job. These are the kids that can get caught in illegal things and bad things because they feel so bad about themselves that they can’t navigate through this world. They need help.”
The True Colors Fund focuses on training and education, and creates a network for caregivers, government agencies and charities to work together.
“This is fixable through education, through talking to the families, to the different agencies and different caregivers,” Lauper says. “We can help these young people become productive, successful American taxpaying individuals, which would help our country. And you cannot discriminate; One might be the person who has the brain to cure cancer or help the environment. But if we don’t invest or focus on the youth, I think you cut yourself off at the knees.”
“All of the sudden, I had to learn the power of the whisper,” the mother of Declyn, 20, recalls. “And in that sense, I think I spoke to the people that needed most to be soothed. This community — which was where my friends and family come from — I felt more connected to them because that’s where I grew up. My gift in life was to see first-hand how people are treated when they fall into that grey area and they are different. That’s why I focused on that.”
Lauper continues, “In every civil rights campaign, everybody has to stand up. “When you have straight allies, then you move forward. If you tell your story, then people evolve. And in an inclusive society, you will win much faster than an exclusive society.”