'Dedicated" To Making A Difference

Helping Queer Teens Help Themselves, Others

By Jerome Stuart Nichols

ANN ARBOR -

Just like everyone else - teenagers are capable of a great many positive things when given the right tools. With the all-inclusive L3C learning/community service organization Dedicated to Make a Change, Executive Director Gail Wolkoff is changing that perception and is giving teens the tools they need to make a better future.

DTMAC's next event is Hope & Change, a "FUNdraiser" to help with the costs of their 2013 community service trip to New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward. The event will be held at 6 p.m. Nov. 3 at MIX Marketplace in Ypsilanti. It will feature a silent auction, live entertainment by DTMAC members and special guest Lower 9th Ward Village Executive Director Ward "Mack" McClendon. Tickets are $25 and will be available at the door.

DTMAC is a youth organization like many others. But it's the pro-teen ideology of Wolkoff that makes the difference to its members.

"I think Gail is one of those rare people who will openly say, 'I like adolescents,'" DTMAC member Max Bonilla said. "I think many people say (they dislike adolescents) without knowing any adolescents. Gail and a lot of the other adults that have worked with Dedicated to Make a Change are people who consider that somebody that is a teenager or an adolescent has ideas and has a mind and can think and be a human."

In a world where even the Muppets on Sesame Street aren't safe from bullies, DTMAC is a much needed organization. And even though its services are needed, trying to succinctly define exactly what they do is difficult.

The organization provides volunteer opportunities, GED support and after school program, among other things. The only difference is that instead of traditional outreach methods, Wolkoff focuses on creating spaces of safety for queer and non-queer teens to organize, learn, do and enjoy a few cookies along the way, all without judgment.

"My goal is to create safety and from that safety, plan out activities," Wolkoff said.

She is "helping to show how to organize and how to learn, how to create change. Learn that every person can make a difference and that because we can sit here and talk about it, we have that responsibility to make a difference, to have fun, to laugh a lot, to eat cookies. We eat a lot of cookies."

Based in Ypsilanti, DMATC was born in 2011 out of Wolkoff's desire to do better for teens than parents, governments and schools are currently doing. As a former educator, she is more than familiar with the varied failings of all three.

"The schools have failed, more than 100 percent," she said. "People don't feel safe; people can't do things because you don't feel safe. You can't show up and say, 'I'm really interested in this' because if you do then someone's going to tease you or bully you or teachers won't let you do it. Then, if you're any kind of a different learner, other than the type of learner that can sit at a desk for eight hours straight, paying attention and focusing and reading a book, then you're 'not learning anything.'"

One of the biggest problems Wolkoff saw was the lack of autonomy and free thinking teens were allowed to do. To remedy this, she made sure that DTMAC not only promoted free thinking, but also free doing, and most importantly, free choice.

"Dedicated to Make a Change is about learning, it's not about education," DTMAC member Allison Melcher said. "You go to school and get an education but you didn't necessarily have to learn a lot in order to get that. With Dedicated to Make a Change, you learn things and you actually get to pick what you want to learn."

In DTMAC, learning is about gaining experiences and skills. From Alternative Spring Break trips to New Orleans and providing maintenance services to Lotts Creek Community School in Hazard, KY, to open discussions about sex, sexuality, gender and sexual health, the experiences are plentiful and eye opening. Even more impressive, the activities and events are developed by the teens themselves and they only have to work on projects that they enjoy.

Although Wolkoff is the executive director, the teens are empowered to bring ideas of what they want to do. With the help of the Jim Toy Community Center, Status Sexy and the HIV/AIDS Resource Center and a few other forward-thinking adults, she works to help the teens help themselves and others.

"You come with your ideas and then they're made into a project," Bonilla said. I think that's when adolescents really get to shine, when they see ideas nobody else would take actually come true."

Planning and executing trips around town and around the country for a bunch of teens - no matter how well-behaved - is a task that most would fake their own death to avoid. But for Wolkoff, making the difference in the lives of the teens and the people they help, is something she feels she must do.

"I have to," she said, "I love youth. I love adolescents. I love that look of, 'what are you trying to make me do, Gail?' and wrestling with ideas. We reflect a lot... it's just that constant thinking, talking, that passion and excitement. I just have to do it, I have to make a change; I have to make the world a better place."

Dedicated to Make a Change is open to youth 12-18 years-old. Prevent and Prevail - their sexual health forum - is open to people up to age 26. Visit http://dedicatedtomakeachange.com for more information on the organization and their various programs.

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