Forever young

Affirmations' youth program has a fresh new look - and some big plans for the teens it serves

by Jessica Carreras

It's Friday evening in Ferndale. Martinis are being shaken at Soho, Club 9 is gearing up for another fabulous weekend and the restaurants are packed. Booze flows freely and Nine Mile Road is abuzz with activity. The 21-and-overs are running the town, surely.

But on the lower floor of Affirmations LGBT community center, it's a whole different world.

Teens begin to file in around 4 p.m., some barely stopping at home after school to drop off their backpacks before they're out the door and taking a bus, or catching a ride, or simply walking to a place where they can just be themselves. Some kids don't stop at home at all.

Music flows almost constantly, trumped only by sounds of laughter. Pool games mingle with confidential HIV testing; dance practice sits side by side with intense conversations about acceptance, bullying and love. Some kids read books, while others eat pizza and talk. Inhibitions about sexuality and gender are left at the door like winter coats worn for protection from harsh weather, and even harsher realities.

If Affirmations' youth program is an indication of things to come for southeast Michigan's LGBT community, the future is bright. It's also eclectic, headstrong, street smart and just a little bit diva. And it loves to dance.

Going through changes

Despite the fun they have, it's not a free-for-all for Affirmations youth, which number at least 70 and range in age from early teens to their early 20s. Last year, the center began to reinvent the entire program, aiming to provide more structure and assistance to these LGBT and questioning young adults, who need much more than just a place to hang out.

"Over the course of the past few months, I've been focusing on the dynamics of the program changing, because it wasn't something that was going to be a gradual process," explains Youth Program Manager Ryan Oliver, who took over the transitioning effort late last summer. "It was something that needed to be done."

And that sentiment holds true not just for Affirmations board and staff members, but for the youth as well.

Oliver and his staff held focus groups with the teens to hear what they needed from the center. The biggest theme? Structure.

"They were very open and honest about a lot of things," Oliver said of the sessions. "They talked about just having structure, because so many of them don't have structure in their day-to-day life."

As 19-year-old Anthony Adams put it, "I don't like horseplay. They see it here (at Affirmations) and they crack down on it. Growing up in Detroit, you see it all the time, and I'm tired of it. It's nice to come here and see something different."

To create structure, Oliver and his team have begun implementing a four-level membership for youth. Expectations for involvement rise with each level, and participants are able to choose which stage is right for them, ranging from a casual Drop-In membership to being part of the Youth Leadership Council.

For the time being, Oliver says, most youth are still completing or have just finished the Drop-In Level, which includes orientation and intake - even for youth who have been involved with the program for months or years.

Each participant is required to have a one-on-one meeting with the youth staff to talk about who they are, what their goals and aspirations are and what areas of their lives they need help with. Oliver shared that the results of the completed intakes have been very helpful - more so than large group meetings with the youth.

"One-on-one interactions, I noticed, was when youth were most candid and open about what they expected from themselves, from us, from their peers," he elaborates. "It was those group meetings where you really just scratched the surface of what they wanted to talk about."

Now, Oliver has a grasp on who the program serves and where it needs to go, although the setup, she says, is a learning process based on the effectiveness of programs Affirmations implements for youth. "We want them to be successful," he says, "but we also want them to have the resources to become successful, and that's where the youth program comes in, to fill in those gaps."

Meet the Aff youth

The youth are varied in their appearances, backgrounds and problems. Many of them are black, gay males from Detroit, while others live in Ferndale or Royal Oak - some within walking distance of the center. Some of them are preparing for college, while others struggle with literacy and obtaining their GED. Some aspire to be doctors; others dream of a life in the spotlight. Affirmations youth may be homeless and HIV-positive, or they may come from a two-parent family and a life of safety.

But some common threads run through them all: the harassment they may face at school, the struggles of explaining their sexuality to their families and friends, or the feelings of being an outsider. Even simple problems - finding a part-time job, dealing with a break-up, or just finishing some difficult math homework, come into play at a typical night at the center.

But at Affirmations, youth are able to share their problems and find other teens like them who understand.

Taylor Cowgill, 15, who recently moved to Ferndale from South Carolina, lives with her two moms and fell in love with Affirmations upon her first visit a few months ago. "It's a lot more fun (than school)," Cowgill, who is bisexual, admits. "There's less drama. It's more people who know you for who you are and know where you're coming from when you talk about your status. They can relate to what you're going through, and there's a lot of people to talk to if you're having problems."

For some, it's as simple as having a place where they can be out comfortably. "You get to see your friends, it's a safe environment and you get to just be gay without any consequences," adds Curtis "KurtKurt" Leaverson.

Alex "DonDon" Issac agrees. Issac, 18, used to come to the center but stopped going, and only recently started back up again. He says that this time around has been a positive experience. "It's a lot more of a friendly environment," he says. "When I came here, people who came here had a negative vibe, and I'm assuming Affirmations took care of that. So when I came back, it was a really cool, friendly environment."

Others, like Kelvin Robinson, have stuck with Affirmations for a long time. Robinson - who does drag performance under the name Miss Katrina - has been going to Affirmations for over six years. Now, at age 20, he feels he is growing out of the youth program, but is happy to see how far it has come and the direction it is headed in.

"I've been through a lot of transitions with Affirmations and participated in a lot of their programs," says Robinson, who remembers not only the old youth program, but the old building the center used to be housed in. "I'm happy (the change) happened for the generation that's coming up. It's getting a lot of people off of the streets, too."

For Robinson, Affirmations offered a place where he could find acceptance, build his self-esteem and gain new skills and abilities that make him the young adult he is today.

"It showed me how to be humble," he shares. "It showed me that if I ever feel like I'm in an unsafe place and I need to run somewhere to be myself, I can come here. Having this building here lets me be who I want to be, or leads me to be the person I want to be."

Issac adds, "It's like a second home."

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