by Lisa Galek
When Colors+ Youth Center opened its doors in 2019, it had a mission: to provide a safe in-person space where LGBTQ+ youth could feel welcomed, accepted, and supported by a community of their peers.
The challenges of COVID-19 have changed the in-person part of that mission, but the focus—advocacy, support, education, and celebration—have not wavered. Colors+ pivoted their programs to online platforms to offer youth chats, Zooms, education classes, family sessions, and even a bi-weekly Dungeons and Dragons game.
The Buckeye Flame spoke with Kristen and Lisa Pepera, founders of Colors+ Youth Center, to discuss the good and bad ways the pandemic has altered their programs, the joys of working with younger kids, and what support they need to keep growing and thriving in the future.
How has the pandemic affected your work at Colors+?
Kristen: It’s affected us greatly, in good and bad ways. Going virtual, we’ve been able to reach a larger geographic area of youth. But it’s also been a hard thing because we had more youth attending in-person. The need has risen at the same time. Some of our youth aren’t able to get online because they aren’t in accepting homes, or maybe they don’t have as easy access to the Internet. In terms of grants and money, that’s affected us as well. We haven’t been able to get as much funding or do as many of our regular fundraisers.
Lisa: We had actually just moved. We stayed in the same building, but we moved down the hall to a much larger space. And we were starting to really fill that space with a lot of kids just walking over from after school because we’re located right by the high school and the library. Sometimes they’d be even from the same school system, but they’d never talk to each other before coming to our space. It was really kind of cool to see that happen. It’s just weird for us, in particular, because we were new and just really growing and, on the rise, and then going virtual changed some of the people that were coming in. Now it’s mostly a whole new set of people.
What virtual programs are you offering right now?
Kristen: So virtually, we’re still offering our weekly drop-in from 4:00 to 7:00 PM on Wednesdays that is chat-based. We also have an option on Wednesdays to do Zoom talks if they are in a safe space. Then every other week, we have Dungeons and Dragons on Saturday, from 12:00 to 3:00 PM. We have monthly Netflix parties that are family-friendly. All the shows or movies are TV-14 or PG-13, and we try to make sure, as much as we can, that they are LGBTQ movies with LGBTQ actors and diverse with BIPOC actors. Something we have currently, and we’re planning on offering at least a couple of times a year moving forward, is LGBTQ inclusive sexual health classes. We collaborated with the Cuyahoga County Board of Health and the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center to put those on over six weeks for an hour and a half each Saturday, and the youth can earn incentives for attending. The great thing about our youth is that they are very vocal about what they want. For example, when we first started, we had support groups. And they told us very quickly, that’s not what they wanted. So, we just made that space for what they wanted.
Lisa: We’re also partnering with the LGBT Community Center of Cleveland for a program called TransU. We’ll be starting December 3rd, and it’ll be for ages 11 to 20, once a week, on Thursdays from 4:00 to 5:00 PM. That’ll be virtual until things get better with COVID. And then we’re also going to be offering a similar class, twice a month, for ages 10 and under, in addition to the support for their parents, during that time on a Saturday, one or two times a month.
You serve a younger population than other LGBTQ+ organizations. According to the statistics on your website, most youth who attended Colors+ between April 2019 and December 2019 were 12-14 years old. Is that right?
Kristen: Our biggest population is the middle school. We are trying to expand that into the 10 and under group as well because a lot of parents reach out and say they need and want that support. We want to make sure that parents and youth feel supported at all ages throughout growing up.
What are the challenges and rewards associated with working with younger kids?
Kristen: I think transportation is a challenge if they are younger than 16. You want to come to our space but don’t have permission to go on the bus, and don’t feel comfortable asking for a ride because maybe you’re not out.
The younger youth are also still exploring in terms of sexuality. Some people don’t understand that gender is usually figured out at a younger age. Our youth are just more vocal about it than previous generations. But gender is something that’s usually figured out by right around age five. Many of our youth, earlier. Some think we’re working in a sexualized environment. That’s not what it’s about. We’re about empowering them and having them have that community with other people like them, so they do not feel alone and do not feel isolated.
Lisa: We’ve had a couple of times where youth have coming consistently, and then we heard through their friends that a parent or guardian found out, and they never returned because they weren’t living in a supportive home. One time we had a parent come and politely take their child home. Their friends have returned, so we know that they’re okay and safe, but they weren’t from supportive homes.
Kristen: The way that we’re trying to get to some of the youth so that they know we’re here is by going to the schools and trying to offer training. We try to contact their GSA and the different alliances they have at the school. Even though a lot of younger kids have phones, they might not be allowed to be on social media. Sometimes the biggest thing is they know that something like this is out there, so that’s helpful even if they can’t attend. They can hold on to that until they graduate and live on their own. They know the spaces that are safe out there for them.
You’re both licensed professional mental health counselors. We hear so much about how the pandemic is affecting young people’s mental health. How do you see it affecting LGBTQ+ youth in particular?
Kristen: LGBTQ youth already have risks associated with being LGBTQ not because that is their identity, but because of the perceived stigma and the barriers to certain things. Some of those things are mental health concerns like anxiety and depression. Some of them are things like obesity and suicidal ideation, and that’s all because of how it is perceived by other people and access to those resources. For example, a lot of LGBTQ youth aren’t as active physically. And that could be for a number of reasons: because of bullying, because of assaults, because of access to only binary locker rooms.
But definitely, when it comes to mental health, we have seen it. When we had things in person, we never had to call parents because of suicidal thoughts or plans. And since we have gone virtual, we’ve had to call three or four times about that. It helps having someone at our programs that knows about that. It doesn’t have to be a mental health professional, but if it’s a person trained in Mental Health First Aid, at least we want to make sure that the youth are protected. And even if they get mad at first, they end up coming back and apologizing, which they don’t need to do. But they come back and apologize and say, Thank you, I needed that. I’m glad I’m safe. I’m glad that I’m coming to this program and have these connections with people. They definitely are having an increased amount of isolation and an increased amount of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation since that COVID started.
And even in this political climate, there’s been research that says that 86% of youth have been negatively affected by the political climate right now. And that was a survey that the youth answered; it wasn’t a survey by observation. So, this year has been compounded for everybody, but especially for LGBTQ youth. We’re just trying to think of more and more virtual things to be able to offer them so that we can best support them, but mental-health wise, it’s been definitely increased.
Lisa: I’ve been looking at a lot of youth surveys and the research, and it is really shocking. Just in general, looking at Ohio’s high school population. The youth responded there. One in three youth responded that they are so depressed, so sad that they’ve had to change what they’re doing. They’re not talking with friends, or they’re not participating in their normal activities, and they’ve lost pleasure in their normal hobbies and stuff like that. That’s one in three, which is really startling. And then when you switch over, and you look to just the LGBTQ community, that number jumps to three in four youth. That’s really overwhelming for us to see as mental health professionals. And some of them are getting help, but a lot of them aren’t. I think it’s important to be really careful and gentle and kind with these youth, because they are experiencing these things that are real, and they’re serious.
What support do you need right now to keep growing as an organization?
Kristen: I think one of the biggest things for us is word of mouth. We need more people to know that we exist so that the youth know that we exist because even if youth are not able to get to a supportive space, knowing that the supportive space is out there is hopeful. We can always use more volunteers, more donors.
Lisa: All of the donations that we do get go straight into our programming and to the youth. Every single program is run by volunteers. So, there’s not too much overhead. And every donation goes directly into some youth activity that we have running.
Once you’re able to reopen Colors+, what are your hopes and dreams for the future?
Kristen: Besides continuing our current programming, we would like to do more programming for 11 to 19-year-olds. More programming for the 10 and under group. More programming for the parents and for the families. Something that we’ve said that we would really like to do is family meals. And just more things for the youth to be able to feel welcomed and accepted.
Lisa: Yeah, I love being in rooms full of youth. That’s what made our hearts happy is seeing a full house of kids just hanging out and having fun and sharing snacks and being kids. That’s what really motivates us.
- Learn more about Colors+ Youth Center by going to their website.
Lisa Galek is a freelance writer and editor. Her writing has appeared in Northeast Ohio Parent, Refinery29, Northern Ohio Live, and on, literally, thousands of American Greetings cards. She lives in the suburbs of Cleveland with her husband and three very clever daughters.