Saturday 18th March - Meeting Larry Everett (IML 1995) at the Tulsa Mr Leather contest.
In March I gave speeches about the Spanner Trust at SM Gays and the London Alternative Market. I tried out several forms of suspension at Just Rope, and the following weekend flew to Tulsa to be the Master of Ceremonies at the Tulsa Mr Leather contest. The weekend ended with a trip to Outback Steakhouse, where I explained my food allergy to the waiter and he said "oh - you need to see our gluten free menu!" (which is also available for download as a .pfd from their website). One three course, gluten free meal later I was ready to fly home.
One of the beneficiaries of the Tulsa Mr Leather contest was the Openarms Youth Project. As part of my weekend in Oklahoma I was given a tour of the project by Board President, Tim Gillean. He kindly agreed to be interviewed for this column:
What's your target population?
Our core outreach is to GLBTQ youth ages 14-21, but all sexualities are welcome.
What services do you offer?
Our most popular event is the Saturday evening disco, which attracts between 100 and 200 young people each week. The night includes a DJ and performances from the young people who come along. Last Saturday one of our youth celebrated his 21st birthday at the centre which had 240 people attending, one of the largest events we've had.
During the week we offer group meetings, Girls in Group, Movie Night and computer access for after school homework. HIV/ STD peer education programs are presented three times a year and the youth receive a certificate for completing the training. We have free HIV testing every other Saturday night. Every Thursday there's a discussion group which begins with dinner prepared by a community person or restaurant who donates their time and food for about 30 youth. We also have a web site which is maintained by the young people and that is one of the best sources of information for GLBTQ youth in this community.
You can see our full calendar of events at www.openarmsproject.org/Calendar.htm
How big are your premises?
In 2003 we relocated to our current location and in 2005 we expanded the project into the size it is today. We now have just over 5,000 square feet of space with 2,200 dedicated to offices, kitchen, games room, computer area etc.
How are you funded?
The rent and utilities are generally covered by the entry fee we charge on Saturday nights, which is a $3.00 fee to enter, but no one is turned away. The youth are made aware that this is how we continue to operate and encouraged to bring their friends. Our HIV/ STD peer education program is funded by a local community organisation, Tulsa Community AIDS Partnership. We receive some additional support from the Kicking Assets fund and the rest is through community support.
The youth plan fundraisers during the year for specific items we need. The next fundraiser will be on June 7th and will feature a fashion show by the young people with a concert by Jason and DeMarco, a pop duo. The evening will be the first time we have opened the centre to the larger community, their chance to see what OYP is all about and tour the facility.
Who makes the decisions about how the project is run?
The organisation is managed by two boards: the adult board, which is comprised of a variety of community leaders and educators from the Tulsa area, and the youth board, which is open to any youth wishing to participate in the business of planning what events are held at the centre. The youth board designs plans and presents them to the adult board for the final decision.
Do you provide any services for people over the age of 21?
Many of the youth who have been regulars at OYP do not want to leave once they reach the age of 21 so we ask them to then become a volunteer. We have a couple of youth who are currently doing just that, one has become a police officer and he now works with our security on Saturday evening to provide a safe environment, another has completed college and now does our volunteer coordination. While our mission is clear about the ages that we serve 14-21, we have not ever turned anyone away that needed assistance. We have helped homeless straight youth just as we do GLBTQ youth.
PFLAG (Parents Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) meets here on Saturday nights, Families First provides dinner once a month and Tulsa Oklahomans for Human Rights provides dinner at different times during the year.
Apart from money what else can the community do to support the project?
We are always trying to improve the Saturday evening social space and currently are in need of a new refrigeration system for the sodas. We do not have bass speakers for the sound system and the youth always like us to upgrade our lighting system, so if you have anything suitable please get in touch.
Are you thinking of expanding your services into any new areas?
The largest need we have identified in our community is a transitional living program. This would be a residential facility to help youth establish a path in life. In this part of the country we have youth as young as 13 that are kicked out of their home just because of who they are. We feel it is the responsibility of the larger GLBTQ community to take care of these youth and that is the next step in our expansion of services. We simply cannot let another GLBTQ youth die because they feel alone in the world and have no where to turn.
Are you aware of any similar project in other cities?
There are a couple of other projects in the U.S. but they operate on a much smaller scale than we do. Our goal it to someday take Openarms nationwide as we believe there is a need for this type of service in every city.
If someone wants to start a youth project elsewhere can they contact you for advice?
They are more than welcome to contact me or Ken Draper through the website or by email to info (at) openarmsproject.org
What's the most rewarding part of being involved in Openarms?
It's hard to explain the impact our organisation has on GLBTQ youth by simply providing them a place where they can be themselves, without judgement. The beauty of this project is to be able to see the youth blossom as they realise they are okay just as they are and can have an impact on the world without denying who they are.
Thank you, Tim, and best wishes for the future.
Have fun, look after yourselves and the people you play with.
International Mr Leather 2003