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Odyssey continues

Center for LGBTQ youth marks its 20th anniversary

The 20th anniversary celebration at Odyssey Youth Center – a nonprofit organization that works with lesbian, gay, transgender and questioning youth – spilled onto the sidewalk in front of the center and into the parking lot and side street out back.

Just a few years ago such a big public celebration was unthinkable.

“We sort of came out as an organization in 2006 when we moved in here on Perry Street,” said Kelly Lerner, president of Odyssey’s board and owner of the building that houses the center. “The Perry neighborhood has embraced us. We have a sign out front and a rainbow banner. This has been a great location for us.”

Center management was a little concerned about the new, much more easily identifiable location and worried they’d be met by protesters on the sidewalk, but that never happened.

Before moving to South Perry Street, Odyssey was in a nondescript building off West Boone Avenue and the specific address was kept secret to protect the youth and staff from harassment.

“It was kind of a creepy location,” said Megan Cuilla, who first visited Odyssey there when she was a teen nine or 10 years ago and now volunteers. “I remember trying to find it and being on the phone with someone there trying to direct me – it was just weird.”

Yet the location didn’t seem to impair the program’s growth. Odyssey was founded in 1992 by Dawn Spellman, who worked as an AIDS outreach worker at the Spokane Regional Health District.

There was one youth at the first meeting and two at the next.

Today, Odyssey serves 200 youths every year, many of whom come back at least once a week.

Watch Pia Hallenberg talk about this story on KHQ

Despite the success, Odyssey is lacking funding. It was announced last week that executive director Carla Savalli was being laid off in an effort to save money and stay afloat until Odyssey’s main fundraiser, the 2012 Masquerade on Oct. 27. The fundraiser is expected to bring in enough money for Odyssey to pay its bills through spring. The group is planning a series of public meetings as it works toward a funding model that’s sustainable.

“We will have to restructure a bit here,” Lerner told the more than 50 people at Saturday’s celebration, before thanking Savalli for her work. “Change is difficult and it can be scary, but we’ve made it through challenging times many times before.”

Savalli is a former city editor of The Spokesman-Review.

Odyssey is the only LGBTQ youth program in Eastern Washington. It brings in youth from Spokane and surrounding counties, as well as from North Idaho. It is open to everyone, and is free. Many of the youths who join Odyssey for support stay on as adult volunteers.

At Saturday’s celebration volunteers shared their earliest Odyssey memories including secretly gathering after school to pile into cars and drive to Odyssey meetings in an environment where they finally felt safe.

Several shared horror stories of school years filled with bullying and very little understanding from teachers, classmates and sometimes even their own family.

“We are that safe space where you can ask lots of questions and you know you aren’t outing yourself,” said Ian Sullivan, Odyssey volunteer and programming coordinator.

When Odyssey became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2001, it broadened its focus: While HIV and AIDS education continued, Odyssey also opened a drop-in center offering classes and programs in budgeting, résumé writing, interview preparation and other life skills. The program also offers computer access, free emergency meals and personal hygiene items as well as gently used clothing, just like any other drop-in youth program.

The organization is funded by private donations and grants, and it recently lost a $40,000 grant from the Ms. Foundation. Private donations are at a low, and other LGBTQ issues such as marriage equality – specifically Washington Referendum 74 – are attracting donations and volunteers, according to a news release announcing Savalli was leaving Odyssey.

To some, LGBTQ issues aren’t the headline-makers they were 20 years ago. Perhaps some of the urgency is gone, and with that some of the funding donations.

Lerner said she agrees a little bit with that statement, but adds that statistics show it remains very difficult growing up as an LGBTQ teen: LGBTQ teens are four times more likely to attempt suicide than teens who are not gay, and everyone who joins Odyssey reports at least one instance of discrimination, bullying or harassment in school or on the job.

Lerner said nearly one-third of LGBTQ youth drop out of high school.

“Everybody is so concerned about the high school dropout rate,” Lerner said. “Helping the LGBTQ youth succeed by supporting Odyssey would be an excellent way to drop that rate.”