As the youth and staff at Indiana Youth Group (IYG) will tell you, "Everyone is welcome at IYG." Located in a small grayish house on the northeast side of Indianapolis, IYG provides a safe haven where self-identified lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth are empowered through programs, support services, social and leadership opportunities, and community service.
Executive Director Mary Byrne says, "The first time the youth walk through the door, IYG tells them they are OK. That makes all the difference in the world for them."
Seventeen-year-old Yriel, a gay Hispanic youth attending a small, college preparatory Catholic high school agrees. "This place saves lives," he says.
Indiana Youth Group began in 1987 when Gay and Lesbian Switchboard operators werenÕt allowed to assist callers who were under 18. At the time, the Gay and Lesbian Switchboard was a help line where people could call in for information, resources and support on LGBTQ topics. In response to the dismal suicide, homeless and dropout rates of self-identified LGBT youth in Indianapolis, Chris Gonzalez and his partner Jeff Werner opened their living room on Thursday evenings to give LGBTQ youth a place to go and talk.
One of the oldest continually running LGBT youth service organizations in the country, IYG has grown and accomplished much over its 25-year history. With an on-going commitment to helping Indiana's LGBTQ youth, IYG has opened an activity center, implemented youth, school and community programming, supported or formed gay-straight alliances (GSA) and educated business leaders, churches, social workers, health care professionals, school counselors, juvenile criminal-justice workers and many other organizations through LGBT Cultural Competency training.
Byrne notes that most youth struggle with the normal craziness of adolescence. "But when you add on top of that this aspect of themselves that they don't quite understand," she says, "and then when they start understanding it, they can't talk about it with anyone. It results in total isolation. Many of the youth are between a rock and a hard place. They need to talk to someone, but they have no idea who is safe."
IYG offers them not only safety but also self-acceptance, confidence, mentoring, leadership opportunities, resilience and community.
Transforming lives at-risk
The youth who arrive at IYG come from diverse ethnic, racial, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. They are also highly at-risk, says IYG Program Director, Christie Clayton. "LGBT youth are at higher risk for suicide, homelessness, alcohol and drug abuse, and other at-risk behaviors."
To counter these risks, IYG offers a variety of programming. Clayton notes that IYG has discussion groups where the youth can talk about coming out, or problems with their families, school or relationships. IYG also offers interesting programs like Ask a Doc, where medical students come in and field questions on health topics.
Clayton emphasizes that at IYG, it's not strictly LGBTQ programs. "We have all different kinds of programs, including art and writing programs, so that they can have self-expression."
The youth also create informal knitting clubs, movie and book discussions, scrapbooking, and other interest groups. In addition to the staff and volunteers who remain on site with the youth at all times, the facility also maintains a strict no smoking and no drinking policy.
"We even have dinner. It's always a good thing for adolescents to have food," Byrne says. "She is quick to add that there is nothing as important as the youth feeling accepted and loved at home. "If these kids don't have that love, that's when you get eight times the amount of depression and suicide, five times the amount of at-risk behavior, three times the amount of tobacco use, and so on."
She emphasizes that the bottom line is helping the youth accept themselves. "I hope that when they leave here they can say, 'I'm OK.' And when you have that base good feeling about yourself, you're not going out and doing risky things. You are not as depressed, and you do not feel like you need to end it all. We want them to feel good about themselves and become healthy, happy adults -- Isn't that what everyone wants?"