Agency for LGBTQ youth moves to new, larger location, institutes code of conduct for youth, volunteers
Everybody needs a safe haven now and then. And few people need it more than LGBT and questioning youth trying to find their own identity and navigate through an often-hostile world.
Providing that much-needed safe space for LGBTQ youth has been one of the primary goals for Youth First Texas since its beginnings. But the organization’s old digs on Maple Avenue weren’t really conducive to that effort.
Up until last November, YFT’s youth center was housed in a building that was also home to a methadone clinic and to an evangelical church — neither of which was a particularly safe environment for young people working out their identities as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, said Judith Dumont, YFT’s director of youth services.
"Parents would bring their kids to the center, and they’d see where it was and what was around it, and they would be nervous to drop their kids off there," Dumont said.
The young people, she added, were often nervous, too, about the area.
But that changed when YFT moved into its new facilities at 3918 Harry Hines Blvd.
It was, in reality, a move of only a couple of miles in actual distance. But the new location is worlds away from the old one in all the ways that really count, said Sam Wilkes, director of development for the organization.
YFT held its annual Thanksgiving dinner for the youth in the old center last November. When dinner was through, they migrated to the new location for dessert. It was the first official event at the Harry Hines location.
Then the center "went dark" for about a week and a half while staff and volunteers moved the furniture and other supplies and equipment to the new location.
"Then we were here. It was pretty bare bones at first, but we were here. But it didn’t really feel like home until about January, when we really got things up and running again," Dumont said.
The new center has about 500 square feet more space than the old location, and the interior was finished out to specifically fit YFT’s needs. Dumont and Wilkes each have their own office, and there are private rooms for the volunteer counselors to hold either individual or group sessions.
There is a large meeting room where the center holds its weekly Thursday programs, and a kitchen area that includes a kind of Internet cafÃ© complete with a number of computers set up with wifi connections.
And — a huge plus — the center has its own gender-neutral restrooms. That’s a big deal, Dumont said, considering that the center used to share restrooms with the methadone clinic and the evangelical church.
The move to the new facility didn’t just make the center a safer space in the physical sense. With the move, new rules and procedures were put into place that have made it safer for the youth emotionally and intellectually, too, Dumont and Wilkes said.
First is the new intake form that allows YFT staff and volunteers to find out, in about five minutes, why an individual has come to the center. By identifying that young person’s individual needs and interests, Dumont said, staff and volunteers are better able to point toward the activities and assistance that will fill those needs.
Maybe one person needs some one-on-one counseling to help them figure out who they are and what they want. Perhaps group counseling is their best option. Or maybe they just want somewhere to go to be around other LGBT youth and accepting adults.
"Of the youth that come here, about 85 percent of their parents know that they are gay or lesbian or trans or questioning," Dumont said. "But even when their parents know, that doesn’t mean it’s easy for them being out at home. A lot of times, the parents don’t know how to respond, and the youth being gay is like the big rainbow elephant in the room. These kids go home and do their homework and then just stay in their rooms, beause there is that tension.
"Here, they can be themselves. They can come here, and if they want to wear a dress or put on make-up or whatever, they can do that," she said.
Wilkes added, "This is a safe place where they can test the boundaries and find out what they like and what they want, and do it without being judged. This is an open environment that gives them the space and the safety to develop their identity and healthy habits."
And to make sure that safety stays in place, YFT has instituted a revised code of conduct that requires the youth who come to YFT to respect the space and each other. That means everything from referring to each other with an individual’s own preferred gender pronouns or "PGPs," to keeping the facility clean, to staying away from alcohol and drugs (use of which are strictly forbidden at the center).
The code of conduct, Dumont says, allows the center’s staff and volunteers to "guide them to make responsible decisions, without being parents or police."
And those who violate the rules must either shape up, or ship out.
"We do have some youth who don’t uphold the code. When that happens, we are willing to give them a second chance. But then, if they are still not willing to follow the code, then they are banned from the center," Dumont said.
Wilkes added, "Our rules carry no weight if we’re not willing to enforce them. And without the rules, this isn’t that safe space it should be."
Once a youth has been banned, he or she "can’t walk through these doors again unless they have demonstrated a marked change in their behavior," Dumont said.
The adult volunteers
With only two paid staff members, Youth First Texas relies heavily on its adult volunteers to keep the center open and the programs running. And again, the concept of the safe space comes into play.
Dumont said that every adult volunteer must go through an extensive, multi-state background check, and any kind of drug- or alcohol-related offense is a deal breaker. The volunteers — and staff — are also required to follow a code of ethics.
"Following that code really requires our volunteers to make some healthy decisions of their own," she said. "I know that it has required me to better exercise my own ethical and moral code, and to set some healthy boundaries."
The center has five licensed counselors who volunteer their services, as well as a roster of other adult volunteers who just want to help mentor the next generation. And while YFT is always looking to recruit a diverse range of new volunteers, both Dumont and Wilkes warned that volunteers need to make sure they have taken off any rose-colored glasses before they sign on.
"Our volunteer retention isn’t what we’d like it to be," Dumont acknowledged. "It takes a very special adult to come in here and really be ready to mentor these young people."
Wilkes said YFT has a volunteer network of about 100 people, with about 30 who are "super active" in the organization. Dumont noted that several area organizations work with YFT, giving special credit to Dallas Bears and Black Tie Dinner. "We couldn’t have made this move without them," she said.
She and Wilkes also offered special thanks to Lory Masters, JC Penney’s, Fast Signs and Richard Gordon, all of whom either donated furnishings and art or services to the move. The Solender-Hall Group, they added, helped find the new location and then donated their fee back to YFT.
YFT also has a volunteer board of adults who oversee its operations, and a Youth Leadership board that also participates in governing the organization.
Already the move to the new location and the changes that came with it are beginning to pay off, Dumont and Wilkes agreed. At the Maple Avenue location, the majority of the youth using the center were 18 and older. Now, with the safer location and the stricter rules, there has been a significant spike in the number of youth ages 14 to 16 who are coming to YFT.
And overall, they said, the center now has the room to grow alongside the young people it serves.
YFT HOLDING FUNDRAISING PARTY AT DISH RESTAURANT
Youth First Texas is holding a special fundraiser Sunday, May 23, from noon to 4 p.m. at Dish restaurant in ilume.
The theme for the party is "Harvey’s Angels," and the event is intended to honor the birthday of legendary LGBT activist Harvey Milk and in honor of his legacy, YFT will recognize individuals, businesses and community supporters who advocate for LGBTQ youth in North Texas.
Special guests include Sisters of the Yellow Rose.
There will be two seatings, at noon and at 2 p.m., and seating is limited at each and assigned on a first come, first served basis. Tickets are $50 and include bottomless champagne cocktails and brunch, and a ticket for free valet service.
For information or to purchase tickets, go online to YouthFirstTexas.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 21, 2010.