By Sara Graham
In the lower level of an unassuming brick building, a safe haven exists for LGBTQ teens. A small group of teens stand in a circle chatting in a front room containing a black couch and coffeetable. A club remix of the Supremes' 'Where Did Our Love Go?' thumps down the hallway from a multi-purpose room where chairs have been cleared for a vogueing and dancing session. A group of young men bust out their best moves, while others watch casually. Across the hallway two teens are on a couch in the library speaking quietly, while others work on computers in the next room.
It is Tuesday night at the Center on Halsted (formally known as Horizons) and the youth program is in full swing.
The Center on Halsted/Horizons youth program provides a safe space for LGBTQ youth and their allies age 13-23. Every week, approximately 130 youth use the resources at the center, Nadeja Wesley, youth social worker, said. From 3-8 p.m., Monday through Thursday, youth have the opportunity to socialize while utilizing such resources as a library, a cyber center and educational programs in a space free of judgment.
'You can come to a program like the Center on Halsted and people won't really question why you do certain things or how you feel about certain things. And [understand] that you will be accepted and you will be embraced and not just tolerated,' Wesley said.
When youth seek the resources at the Center, they are first given an assessment by a staff member, which determines the youth's needs. Commonly these needs include counseling, GED help, housing, or employment, Wesley said. Staff members work with resources in and outside of the Center on Halsted/Horizons organization to help youth.
It is the individualized attention that each youth receives that is most effective in helping youth understand what the program has to offer, Wesley said. In addition to working with the staff to connect youth to helpful services, the center itself is a place where youth can connect to each other and bond on a variety of levels.
'As in any youth program, we're similar in that this is a great place for people to come and connect with other people with common interests,' Wesley said. Youth not only support one another on self-identity issues, but bond on rites of passage for any teenager such as graduating high school and getting into college, she said.
The youth program helps teens connect by being tailored for different groups. Mondays are teen drop-in days for youth age 13-19. Tuesday and Thursdays are open to any youth age 13-23 and Wednesdays are reserved for lesbian, bisexual and transgender women.
A typical Tuesday or Thursday evening at the Center on Halsted/Horizons' youth program allows youth to have free time, using the library and computers and socializing with friends until 5 o'clock, when the youth set up and help prepare dinner. After dinner, youth have the choice to attend an hour-long discussion group whose topics have ranged from patriotism to gay marriage. The youth program also uses group time to present quarterly educational programs, whose curriculum focuses on HIV/AIDS risk reduction and education and are presented by staff, volunteers or youth facilitators.
Alexandre Yanez, 19, has been using the Center since October 2003. He is currently a youth facilitator and recalled how being a leader in the program has impacted him.
'We become really, really close friends,' he said. 'And later I see other youth expressing themselves how they truly are and succeeding and that makes me really proud of myself.'
Through listening to other youths' experiences at the Center, Yanez said he felt welcome and accepted when he first came to the Center and was not out yet. As a youth facilitator, he tries to make new youth feel as welcome as he felt, he said.
'They [staff and friends] provided me help by saying, 'You need to boost your self-esteem,' and I actually did it,' he said.
The youth program at the Center has been a resource for LGBTQ youth for approximately 30 years, Wesley said. Painter Michael Bonfiglio used the resources at the Center on Halsted/Horizons while in high school during the late 1980s and said the youth program was instrumental in his development and in his coming out.
'That was the building block of who I am today. It really started there,' he says of the program.
Bonfiglio first went to the Center on Halsted/Horizons youth program to attend a drop-in meeting. Prior to his experiences at the Center on Halsted/Horizons youth program, Bonfiglio felt shameful and unsafe about his identity, especially at school.
'I always felt like I was 'the outsider', but this was the first time I felt like I was not on the outside looking in but I was actually inside. I was part of the group. And everybody accepted each other. No one's going to spit on you, no one is going to call you names, no one's going to make fun of you or chase you. You are safe,' he said.
In addition to feeling comfortable being gay for the first time, Bonfliglio said he also felt newly comfortable with his ethnicity, feeling at ease not only by the LGBTQ-positive attitude of the program, but also because it has historically been diverse.
'I was in a room filled with other kids who were identifying as gay or bisexual, but there were also kids of different races ... it was very, very diverse,' he said. 'It was the first time I felt comfortable being Puerto Rican. That was the first time I felt like 'Wow, OK, I'm OK. There were all these things I thought made me bad, but really I'm not bad'.'
As an adult, Bonfliglio has been active in fundraisers for the Center such as the Human First Gala. He donated his own art and urged other artists to give for the silent auction. He is committed to giving back to the organization that helped him come out as a teen, he said.
'Having the services for youth makes the whole process of coming out or facing your sexuality and facing yourself a lot easier because you don't feel like you're the only one who's like this,' he said.
The youth program is planning to relocate with the Center on Halsted/Horizons to its new location on 3640 N. Halsted Street, which is projected to open in 2006, said Robbin Burr, new executive director of Center on Halsted/Horizons. Leading up to the move, advertisements about the new location will increase and the youth will be informed of the change, she said.
The youth program will grow with the new facilities at the Halsted location, which will include a gymnasium, a larger cyber center, a research center, and a multi-purpose performance area, Burr said.
Yanez says that the new building will be more convenient than the present location at 961 W. Montana. 'It will be better because everyone goes to hang out after [meetings] at Belmont and Halsted.'
Call (773) 472-6469.