October 21, 2011

Church opens drop-in center for gays, others

By Amy Calder acalder@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

WATERVILLE -- Junior high and high school students who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered need not worry about lack of support from members of the Universalist Unitarian Church.

SPECIAL SERVICE

Where: Universalist Unitarian Church, Silver Street, Waterville
When: 10 a.m. Sunday
What: Announcement of the opening of a drop-in center for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered youth.
For more information about the drop-in center, email teenctr@gmail.com.

The church on Silver Street is opening a drop-in center for those youths.

It's a safe place where they can socialize, share refreshments and find support from both their peers and adults.

"Gay kids need adults who can say to them, 'I've got your back, you're going to be safe, it's going to be OK,'" said Connie Winship, co-chairman of the church's Welcoming Congregation Committee.

At 10 a.m. Sunday, the church will host a special lay service focusing on bullying, as it has done the last two years, Winship said.

The service will include a formal announcement of the opening of the drop-in center, she said. A video clip will be shown from the It Gets Better Project, which seeks to inspire hope for people facing harassment, she said.

Winship encouraged anyone interested to attend.

"We'd love to have the world here," she said.

The drop-in center is the church's way of supporting the Waterville Inclusive Community Project, a group of community members and Waterville school administrators and staff supporting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered youth.

Other organizations, such as churches and colleges are supporting the efforts, according inclusive project co-director, Mark Fairman.

The project has helped senior and junior high school students form student-led groups that address gay, bisexual, lesbian and transgendered issues. It also has provided professional development activities for teachers and staff as well as sent information to parents.

A survey at Waterville senior and junior high schools in 2009 showed students reported sexual orientation and gender identity as the predominant basis for harassment, according to Fairman and Winship. Results also showed that staff identified their schools as resistant to being gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered inclusive.

The school last year was awarded a $10,000 grant to help make Waterville a welcoming and safe place for gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual youth.

Peter Burgher, a psychologist and president of the Unitarian Church's Board of Directors, said gay teens receiving a message that it's not OK to be who they are tend to keep their sexual orientation secret and in a sense, choose to live a double life, which is psychologically harmful to them.

Teens learn about dating and relationships in high school and if that component is taken out of the picture, they suffer psychologically, he said.

"The drop-in center is about us trying to create a community where kids can be what they are and don't have to pretend to be something other than what they are."

The church's new pastor, Meg Anzalone, said the church is a welcoming congregation and one of the church's roles is to respect the dignity and worth of all people.

The drop-in center is an example of that, she said. "This will be another new endeavor. I'm delighted -- I couldn't be more pleased. It means so much to young people to have support."

Fairman said he hopes the Inclusive Project and drop-in center will be copied in other areas.

Darla Linville is project co-director with Fairman and helps teens create training sessions for their peers and adults who work with them.

Officials declined to reveal the time the drop-in center is open for fear that those attending may be targeted or harassed. They said anyone wanting more information may email teenctr@gmail.com.

The project is funded by the Maine Community Foundation; Fairman said its partners include Colby College's The Bridge group, Waterville Public Library, Waterville junior and senior high schools, Alfond Youth Center, South End Teen Center, Kennebec Valley Community Action Group, Greater Waterville Communities for Children & Youth, Hardy Girls, Healthy Women and Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays of Waterville.

Amy Calder -- 861-9247

acalder@centralmaine.com

Special service on bullying

Where: Universalist Unitarian Church, Silver Street, Waterville

When: 10 a.m. Sunday

What: Announcement of the opening of a drop-in center for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered youth.

For more information about the drop-in center, email teenctr@gmail.com.

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