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Shawn Vestal: A place of safety faces financial straits

FRIDAY, AUG. 12, 2011

Nick Bohall, center, raises his arms in victory as he and other young people, and a few adult mentors, celebrate a point while playing a Pictionary-style game Wednesday at Odyssey Youth Center. (Jesse Tinsley)
Nick Bohall, center, raises his arms in victory as he and other young people, and a few adult mentors, celebrate a point while playing a Pictionary-style game Wednesday at Odyssey Youth Center. (Jesse Tinsley)

Kids sprawl on the couch, teasing and bantering. A young man cuts up a watermelon in the kitchen. Laptops pop open. The fridge door opens and shuts, opens and shuts. A rowdy group plays a game before a dry-erase board – a combination of charades and Pictionary.

“OK!” a woman shouts. “I ordered pizza for dinner. It’ll be here at 5:30.”

In many ways, the afternoon scene at Odyssey Youth Center is like any home full of teenagers. But Odyssey is unique in Spokane – the city’s only center for gay and lesbian kids, or anyone who wants to stop by for a safe place to hang out. Its home-like atmosphere is purposeful, given that many of these kids – because of their sexual orientation or their family circumstances – lack simple, safe comforts, whether it’s a supportive adult or a bottle of shampoo.

“These kids need a place to go where they feel safe, where they can just be whoever they are,” said Carla Savalli, Odyssey’s executive director and chief pizza wrangler. (Savalli is also a former Spokesman-Review editor.)

Like a lot of nonprofits, Odyssey is trying to steer through some rocky financial waters. The center lost a $40,000 grant this year, and two others worth $15,000 didn’t come through – a $55,000 hit in its $131,000 budget. It has since picked up a matching donation of up to $10,000, and it’s trying to raise money against that, apply for more grants, and patch together funding from garage sales, neighborhood fundraisers and its “Dare to Care” drive.

It’s not exactly an emergency. But it’s not exactly not, either.

“At this point, we have enough to run until the end of the year,” Savalli said. “We’ve been trying not to think about the worst-case scenario and just focus on raising community awareness, trying to get more individual and corporate donors, and applying for grants.”

The center helps some 250 kids a year. It’s open three days a week in the afternoons, provides hot meals, support, and anything else you can think of. These young people are often struggling with enormous questions of identity at a time of life that is already fraught with sensitive issues. Gay and lesbian kids are more likely to be bullied, more likely to be homeless, and more likely to attempt suicide than straight kids. In addition, well over half the kids served by Odyssey came from homes well below the poverty line.

Jessica Hettich’s story is not uncommon. An 18-year-old who’s dating another young woman, she left home at age 16. Her father died, she didn’t like what was happening with her mother, and she went to live with a friend.

“I didn’t really feel like I had any parents, any adult guidance, any of that,” said Hettich, who’s headed to WSU this fall.

She doesn’t feel like she endured a lot of bullying at home or at Lewis and Clark High, but the last few years have been a period of questioning and uncertainty about her sexuality – on top of all the questioning and uncertainty that naturally comes with adolescence. She started coming to Odyssey at the advice of an LC counselor.

“I didn’t know anybody so it was a bit scary to come here by myself,” she said. “But I met a bunch of people who are now my really good friends.”

A lot of the Odyssey kids are living through a transitory, evolutionary period. Melissa, who asked that I not use her last name, said when she first started coming to the center a few years ago, she only knew she was different in some way, not that she was a lesbian. Now she’s 20, and she sees the same thing in lots of others at the center.

“They don’t know what they are,” she said. “They’re growing up.”

Consider Saria. An 18-year-old whose given name is Daniel Daigen and who considers himself transgendered, he’s starting to live as a woman, with an eye on a long future that may involve expensive surgeries and plenty of social awkwardness, at the least. He says his mother has disowned him, most of his family – even the somewhat accepting ones – don’t approve of what he’s doing.

“I’m not going to change myself, or try to change their minds,” he said. “If they want to be in my life or they don’t, it’s up to them.”

Financial straits are not unusual for nonprofits, and Odyssey has had them before. In late 2009 and early 2010, a former director, Ryan Robinson, allegedly misappropriated more than $2,600 in Odyssey funds; center officials say they notified the police immediately when problems were discovered, changed banks and improved accounting practices. A warrant has been issued for his arrest on a charge of second-degree theft; Savalli and board chairman Kelly Lerner say the problems are not related to the loss of the grants.

Savalli said that Odyssey’s top priority is safety for the kids – but safety doesn’t necessarily mean a lock and key. It might include just a place to flop down and relax. Play a game or eat a meal. Get a couple bucks for the bus or a haircut. But the center also helps encourage the kids to stay in school, enroll in college, earn their GED, and to battle problems with bullies or harassment.

Most young people live their lives in three arenas: home, school, church. When you’re young and gay, any one of those can be a landmine, said operations coordinator Ian Sullivan. Odyssey, in ways both small and enormous, can help them through it.

“What I notice about this place are the connections,” said Hettich. “We’ve kind of built a little family. We’re all connected to each other.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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