Out! supports, empowers at-risk youth
Rockland — For the past 17 years, a local organization has provided a safe space for at-risk youth while they venture to figure out one of life's struggles — sexuality.
Out! As I Want to Be is Midcoast Maine's only program that supports and empowers lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning or LGBTQ youth age 22 and under through affirmation, advocacy, education and guidance.
The nonprofit organization, located on Main Street in Rockland, provides twice-weekly drop-in programs for youth members. The programs provide an ongoing supportive environment through the sharing of meals and their experiences. It also has been a base for both personal and leadership development. As many as 20 youth attend any given evening, with up to 60 members total.
Out! is not a counseling organization.
"We are not trying to 'fix' these kids," said Dooley. "We take them from where they are and build on their confidence."
The organization utilizes a "harm reduction model" versus a "just say 'no' model" — helping youths that perceive themselves negatively gain strength, independence and confidence.
Researchers have found that suicide among LGBTQ youth is comparatively higher than among the general population and they have one of the highest rates of attempted suicide.
These at-risk youth experience many forms of discrimination including anti-LGBT hostility, harassment, bullying and even family rejection.
In a recent study by Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, nine out of 10 LGBT students reported being subject to harassment in their schools and communities.
"Some of these kids have no place to turn," said Drop-in Director Lis Clark. "They have many things going on at once. They are teenagers. They are different. They have limited support," Clark said.
"Resources are so minimal," said newly appointed Executive Director Jeanne Dooley. The organization receives no funding from state or federal agencies. The members and advisers work as a team to write grants and seek donations to keep the doors open.
"If we could get the adult LGBT population to recall what they went through without such a program and donate from the heart our outreach would go a great deal farther," said Dooley.
"Our challenge is how can we create what we have here in other parts of the country," she said.
The organization went to state and federal agencies seeking a model for their mission, but were told there was not one.
"What you have is what there is, is what we were told," said Jeff Alexander, Out! board member and adviser.
Out! not only wants to strengthen its program within the community and its schools, it plans on creating a safer environment online as well. A large part of the LGBTQ youth remains outside the in-person opportunity due to transportation limitations, particularly for youth under age 16.
"We plan to harness the power of the Internet to help these isolated youth," said Dooley.
Proof of the program's success in mentoring is seen in board member Lindsay Parker.
"I am a person of small stature, but I've learned my voice means something," said Parker.
Parker's temperament used to be shy and reserved, said her advisers.
"Out! has done a lot for me. It has helped me find out who I am and given me confidence," said Parker.
Parker formed the GSTA or gay, straight, transgender alliance at Oceanside East last winter. She said initially there were 10 students who would meet regularly, but there was not an adviser.
"Infrastructure is very important," said Dooley, who added the faculty needs to embrace the program.
"We plan to build on this strong foundation and expand the opportunities for our youth to find their own voices and to step into leadership roles — both in their schools and in their communities," said Dooley.
Out! is looking forward to a promising year, with several grants from the Lerner Foundation and the Haney Fund allowing staff to provide more targeted support to enhance GSTAs in area schools.
Dooley said Out! is excited to be working with Equality Maine's new initiative to provide leadership training for LGBTQ youth. In a six-month targeted program, the EQME program will provide intensive training in leadership skills — ranging from how to run meetings and build volunteer teams through advocacy skills and working effectively with the media.
"We are building leaders and agents of change," said Dooley.
Last spring four Midcoast high schools participated in a Day of Silence to call attention to the way name-calling and bullying can silence the voices of LGBT youth and allies. Some students from Oceanside East, Oceanside West and Medomak Valley High School participated. Camden Hills Regional High School has conducted a Day of Silence for several years, and due to scheduling conflict, held theirs on a different day.
A national Day of Silence has been held each year in April since 1996. The next Day of Silence will be April 18, 2014. As it usually falls during spring break, schools may choose to hold it the week after.
The organization has experienced highs and lows when dealing with its at-risk population. Many youth find themselves dealing with depression or emotional problems, and some may turn to drug or alcohol to dull the senses of being "different". Some end up homeless and even commit suicide.
"The best thing that's happened is seeing some of those young people who were homeless now starting college," said Clark. "The worst thing is that every once in a while there is someone you just can't reach."
Dooley, Clark, Parker and Alexander agreed society needs to understand that these at-risk youth are born this way — it is not a phase they will grow out of nor is it a conscious choice.
They also said that the world has changed in its mindset of acceptance, but agreed there still is a long way to go.
"We've gone from 20 years ago when a boy was beaten to death for being gay to one of our young men parading down Main Street wrapped in a rainbow flag in the Lobster Festival Parade," said Alexander.
"I think there has been a fair amount of change," he said.
For more information, to volunteer, or to make a contribution to Out!, visit outmaine.org.
Courier Publications reporter Beth A. Birmingham can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 125 or via email at email@example.com.
594-4401 ext. 125
Beth rejoined Courier Publications' news staff in February 2013. She previously worked at The Courier-Gazette from 1981 to 1990.
Her coverage area includes Warren, Union, Friendship, Waldoboro, Washington, and Thomaston and RSU40.
Beth has a passion for photography, and a degree from the University of Maine at Augusta, in affiliation with the Maine Photographic Workshop in Rockport.
Aside from photography, Beth enjoys running and walks along the waterfront, as well as other outdoor activities. She has a daughter, Claire, who is 13.
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