The Lessons My Community Center Teaches Me During The Holidays

As you've most likely figured out from previous posts, I'm invested in Pittsburgh's LGBTQ Community Center - known as the GLCC (Gay and Lesbian Community Center.) Thus, I am often asking you to also invest either with your time, your donations or your participation in events and programs.

So let me tell you why.

In 1995, I was sent to a rural Kentucky town to launch a community center in partnership with the Catholic Church. I was in far over my head, but I did the best that I could and learned lessons that are sometimes hard to articulate. I started with a former airport building with no heat or bathroom, filled to the brim with donated clothing and surrounded by weeds. 

A pastor who was a carpenter (yes, that's true) came in with his church members to build an office, a bathroom, a food pantry and more. Women from the community volunteered to sort the mounds of clothing in exchange for "credit" to purchase items for their families - the days were filled with the sounds of women talking and their children playing in the Center. The pantry was filled by donations from a list of 25 churches that each held a drive once a year - to share the burden.

It was here that I fell in love with the concept of a community center. I began to grasp how systemic issues created challenges that no one church or even one community could overcome. We never had enough money for food vouchers or gasoline or motel stays. I watched as a $300 car repair bill could destroy a family's self-sufficiency.

Broken car > can't get to work > no alternatives such as a bus > lose job, no unemployment >personal reactions (drinking, arguing, self-loathing) > apply for social programs > personal reactions > rinse, repeat

I also learned that simple things mattered. My dream was to make a washing machine and dryer available as the cost of a laundromat was often too dear and it wasn't easily accessible. I knew dozens of women (this was 1995) who were using wringer washers and simply burning clothing that was "too dirty". I had insisted that the carpenters install an accessibility ramp and we had several regular visitors who couldn't attend their preferred church because of a wheelchair or other mobility restrictions. We became their church family, the assorted lot of Catholic, Baptist, Mormon, Pentecostal, Assembly of God, non-denominational and non-believers among us.

The GLCC is a different kind of community center - serving a community of interest (LGBTQ) rather than defined by geography. And when I first "met" the Center in 2003, it was more office like than it is now. But I thought it was great - the library, the newspapers and magazines, the potlucks, the classes. The GLCC is where I first learned things beyond the superficial about the trans community through a discussion panel they organized one year during Pride. The GLCC phoneline was there with information when I had questions. The GLCC had a flourishing youth program. It was a dynamic space.

And the GLCC is where I met my partner, Laura - a story I've discussed before.

As I would expect over a ten-year span, the GLCC has evolved into a new type of community center. They relocated to a Downtown location easily accessible by bus, the T and relatively close to parking. The library is now the 3rd largest in the nation. And youth programming has evolved as the GLCC took the lead in a coalition of 22 organizations and providers to establish access points to service for homeless youth, especially LGBTQ youth. The Center created a social programming series for adults over 50 (NEXUS) and another for youth 18 and older (SPECTRUM) along with expanding partnerships with the transgender community and the adult community.

The GLCC is a community space that is precious and important. It provides a safe space for us physically, emotionally, online, in the community and more.

I think it will continue to be important, especially as our state is embroiled in a battle for equality. Equality is an uneven path and many continue  to struggle with the consequences of being out, of the economy, of healthcare, of education and more.

The thing that most resonates and reminds me of my  time with the community center in Kentucky are the young adults, ages 25 to 40 who are among the most active users of the Center. As I've interviewed many of them for a blog feature, I keep hearing "I was in the youth programs" as part of their story about their first contact with the GLCC. The fact that so many of those youth program graduates have come back to give back is telling about the value of their experiences. It reminds me of the women who wouldn't take a "handout" of clothing for their family, but would willingly barter their time volunteering - the time they invested far exceeded the value of the clothing they did take, but they took away something else - their dignity, pride and sense of belonging, of contributing to their community.

The GLCC is asking for donations of blankets and coats in large adult sizes as part of an emergency appeal before the Christmas holiday. If you have these items to share, please bring them to 210 Grant St, Downtown Pittsburgh between Monday and Saturday from 12-9.

You can also donate online using Paypal. Donations help keep the lights turned on and the phoneline working and the library label maker operating.

Your blanket or $25 donation can be the simple thing that matters, that gives hope and encouragement, that keeps people invested and connected when times are dark and when they are good.

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