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25 Years of Support: an Organizational History of Indiana Youth Group

"The time has come for us as a society to stop teaching these kids to hate themselves. I have to deal with them on a daily basis. I hear the pain and see the pain. It's just not right. I can't understand it being right by anybody's value code."

~ Chris Gonzalez, Indiana Youth Group founder, as quoted in an Indianapolis Star interview.


Humble Beginnings

Today's Indiana Youth Group CenterTo some, it just does not feel like it was that long ago that Indiana Youth Group was born; but to current youth members, it was more than a lifetime ago. Either way, for 25 years, the organization has been in the business of transforming the lives of LGBTQ youth.

Indiana Youth Group began with members of the Indianapolis Gay and Lesbian Switchboard who often received calls from youth in distress. As volunteer counselors for the hotline, Chris Gonzalez and Pat Jordan would be the first to respond to these youth. The problem was that there was no place to refer these youth in crisis. The void in resources for this population inspired the two switchboard volunteers to take action.

In 1987 Gonzalez and his partner, Jeff Werner, decided to host an LGBTQ youth support group out of their own home. The support group soon saw an encouraging response in youth attendance. "There was no real structure for the meetings at the time. It was a time for the youth to talk about what was on their minds," stated Tricia Pohlman, who served as the IYG Board of Directors Vice President from 1988 to 1991. "The support group turned into meeting once a week at the old Damien Center. We did a lot of outings back then. The group held skate parties, had camp retreats at Bradford Woods, and we even went to the March on Washington". Pohlman recalls that the group was so active then because of the constant drive of the organization's founders, "I don't recall really knowing Chris on a social level. It was like he was always doing something to further the cause of IYG. Chris was the youth group".

The "Indianapolis Youth Group" was incorporated in Indiana and received its non-profit status from the IRS in 1989. In 1997, the articles of incorporation were amended to change the name to "Indiana Youth Group".

Major Growth

In 1991, IYG found a chance to further reach youth in distress with their messages of support. The organization was funded a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Conference of Mayors for both HIV prevention education and the operation of a youth switchboard. The hotline later secured more funding from the Centers of Disease Control and the Indiana State Department of Health in the following year. IYG's peer counseling hotline became the first toll-free switchboard for LGBTQ youth in the nation.

During 1991, the hotline trained 38 peer counselors and received 45,000 calls. It was also in 1991 that IYG received funding from The Health Foundation of Greater Indiana to purchase the cozy gray house at 46th and Binford where the organization continues to host programs today. The first meeting in the "new" center occurred in August of 1992. Upon obtaining the location, IYG became one of only three programs of its kind in the entire country.

Chris McDivitt, former IYG youth and current volunteer, recalls what it was like to be a peer counselor for the hotline. "Originally, I found out about Indiana Youth Group when I was 19 years old and had placed a call to the switchboard." McDivitt attended IYG as a youth for two years, and in that time he found acceptance. "It was Chris Gonzales that put me at ease. I remember he always gave you his full attention and listened to you. With time he sought out the skills that I had and got me involved in working with the Switchboard. It made me feel really good about myself".

In the beginning, the peer counselor hotline with its the focus on HIV prevention education and its unique approach to reaching LGBT youth made IYG a model youth service program in the country. By 1992, IYG gained national attention for the organization's cutting edge programs and was featured on ABC's 20/20 and in an article in The Advocate.

In the early days, IYG provided a safe environment for youth by keeping the location of the program strictly confidential. Youth were only given the location of the youth center after calling the Switchboard. This system worked well because through the Switchboard the organization received calls from LGBTQ youth all over the country. It was then that Gonzales saw a need to expand the support for these youth to other locations in Indiana. The idea for satellite meetings across the state soon came about.

Reaching OUTward

"I remember I heard Chris Gonzales speak somewhere about the crisis situations of some of the youth. That was what inspired me to get involved," recalls IYG volunteer Tina Darwin. "It was 1992 or 1993 that the other Indiana chapters began. I volunteered with the Lafayette location." Eventually, IYG built nine other chapters in Indiana cities and towns. At that time, the chapters in the rural areas had a lot of concerns for safety. "Most of the kids would come to the meetings, which were held one Tuesday night a month, and their parents did not know," stated Darwin. "Our meetings were held in a church who knew who we were and the purpose of our meetings. There was also a group of boy scouts that would meet in the same building at the same time. We could never really be open to anybody as to who we were though for fear of what might happen. The youth were only given the location of the meeting after calling the hotline and being interviewed first." Darwin recalled that youth were so afraid of being discovered, that many of them only came to a meeting once in a while to avoid rousing suspicions with parents about their being gay. She recalled that none of the youth who attended the meetings were out to their parents. "There was one youth who only made it to a couple of meetings, but I remember him telling us that just his knowing that we existed provided him with great comfort and support".

In addition to the state chapters and the Switchboard, IYG quickly expanded its programs. In 1991 IYG held the first Prom for the organization, which continues to be an annual event today. The Pen Pal program also started in the early 90's, and by 1993 had over 350 members from across the country.

Overall, it was estimated that 5,000 youth came face to face with IYG programs in the first six years of existence. The impact of the agency on youth during the early days was immeasurable "IYG helped me break down the fear of my peers," recalls McDivitt today, "it completely changed my life because it helped me realize that I was no longer dealing with this alone".

In Memory of the Founders

The news appeared on the front page of the Indianapolis Star on May 7th, 1994 under the heading "Prominent Gay Leader Chris Gonzales Dies". The article highlighted the profound accomplishments of the organization's founder. His passing came as a shock to everybody, because it was only two days beforehand that Gonzales was in New York lobbying for funding. Upon coming home he fell ill and passed away suddenly on May 5, 1994. In the article there is a quote from his mother, Valerie Scott-Gonzales, that captures what so many people knew and loved about the man. "He was sent here, I believe, for a mission. He got done what he was supposed to do. Now it's up to the rest of us to carry on".

Upon Gonzales' passing, his partner, Jeff Werner, led the organization as the new Executive Director and remained in the position until he resigned in October, 1996. Werner passed away in January, 1997.

Moving Forward

In April of 1997, IYG hired its third Executive Director, Steve Laughner. It was at this time that the staff expanded to include full time positions with a Health Case Manager, Social Case Manager, and Outreach Coordinator. This expansion was due in part to a large federal grant IYG obtained through the Youth Access Program.

"The research and grant writing began in 1993 for the Youth Access Project," recalls Dr. Eric Wright who served as a researcher for the Youth Access Project from 1993 to 1998. During that time Dr. Wright became very involved in the infrastructure of the programs of IYG. From 1999 to 2001 he served as the President for the Board of Directors.

"The funding from the Youth Access Program came from the Ryan White Care Act Title IV and was considered a program of National Significance." Dr. Wright stated. The Youth Access Program was monumental for the organization because it involved some thorough research on adolescent health and youth related prevention which made IYG one of 9 programs in the country doing this at the time". The findings from the program can be found on this website under Research.

"The vision that Chris Gonzales articulated for the program was to have a primary healthcare provider onsite as well as case managers and a nurse practitioner for onsite testing," Dr. Wright recalled. Though in the end, there was a "drift from the original idea" and the staff had to restructure into different positions.

Laughner left the agency in 1999 during the time that Dr. Wright was the President of the agency's Board of Directors. The agency then hired Dr. Robert Connolly as the Executive Director in 2000.

Homeless Youth

Many national statistics state that LGBTQ youth are disproportionately overrepresented in the nation's homeless population. Because of this, IYG started to create programs to assist homeless and at-risk LGBTQ youth as early as 1994, when the organization founded a transitional housing unit. This program existed until May of 1995.

The issue of homelessness became a growing concern when national statistics surfaced citing that anywhere from 16 - 40 % of all homeless youth are LGBTQ. Because of this disproportionate representation, in 2001 Executive Director Rob Connolly led the organization in the creation of a homeless street outreach program. The program was funded by a three year grant from the Administration of Children and Families, and focused on connecting homeless and "sofa surfing" youth to needed resources via street outreach. By the time the funding for the program ended in 2004, hundreds of area LGBTQ youth had been linked to various services such as healthcare, job programs, emergency shelter, housing, transportation, food, and even furniture for their apartments through the IYG Street Outreach Program.

On the Net: The New Form of Outreach

In the new millennium, the organization started to see a lot of youth utilizing the web to meet other youth and to get needed information on health concerns, resources, and other interests. IYG saw all of this online activity as a new and inexpensive way to outreach to youth everywhere with messages of drug prevention, HIV prevention, and messages of support.

In 2003, IYG launched two internet based outreach programs. The first was funded by the Indiana State Department of Health and used a peer- to-peer conversational model to get HIV prevention information to young people online. The second program was funded through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Association and again used a peer-to-peer model to educate youth on the dangers of popular club drugs.

Until 2011, IYG continued this mode of outreach and operated an HIV prevention cyber outreach program funded through the Indiana AIDS Fund.

Today's Youth, Tomorrow's Leaders

If IYG is known for anything, it is known for creating youth leaders in the LGBT community. (City-County Councilor Zach Adamson is an IYG alumni.) From the organizational beginnings of peer-to-peer counseling to speaking on LGBT issues at the statehouse, IYG youth have become well rounded leaders in the community over the years.

Throughout the years the opportunity for youth leadership has presented itself in many ways, particularly around politics. From attending the March on Washington in the early 90's to rallying to end SJR-7 (that would add an amendment to the Indiana constitution defining marriage as only for a man and a woman) in Indiana to the student leaders forming Gay Straight Alliances in their high schools, IYG youth have been shaped by their firsthand experiences in LGBT Activism.

LGBT Youth in School

The leadership skills of IYG youth have transferred nicely into the academic setting over the years to address issues of student rights within the school. In 2005, IYG formed the first ever Indiana GSA Network to provide support to existing area GSAs and assist students in creating new GSAs in their schools. As part of this venture, IYG youth and staff have taken part in the National GSA Network Conferences from to the present. IYG currently receives funding from the Eli Lilly and Company Foundation for the support of the Indiana GSA Network.

In 2006 and 2007, a program focused on LGBT student leadership was organized by Dr. Frank Ross of IUPUI. The IYG Student Leadership Academy offered workshops for LGBTQ high school students to develop the skills necessary to succeed both as a student and in future careers. It was offered to 10 - 12 youth who participated in workshops held on a Saturday. The topics and workshops from this leadership program have now been incorporated into the regular programming offered to all youth at the IYG center.

Creative Ventures

In 2001, IYG embarked upon two major fundraising ventures that have truly stood the test of time. In 2001, IYG presented the first Indianapolis LGBT Film Festival which screened 15 films and featured special guest stars. During that same year, the first annual IYG Art Auction fundraiser took place, featuring art from IYG youth and professional artists. Both events continue on as major community events and benefit IYG. In 2011 the Film Festival became a project under Indy Pride with hopes of raising additional funds through sponsorships.

Twenty Years and Counting!

After two decades of service to LGBTQ youth, Indiana Youth Group celebrated the organization's success with a 20 Year Anniversary Dinner at the Indiana Historical Society in 2007. The dinner featured IYG Alum, IYG youth, a special tribute to the founders, and guest speaker Keith Boykin.

IYG experienced some difficult years after Rob Connelly left the organization. During the mid-2000's the board hired Lydia Davidson and Chris Tolzman to head up IYG, but the matches didn't last. Before and after these EDs IYG went for extended periods of times with no paid ED, relying on Board Presidents Linda Perdue and Sean Lemieux to keep the organization afloat. Longtime staff member Jill Thomas was also instrumental during this time in keeping IYG open for LGBTQ youth.

"IYG, the Movie" was a project in 2007 written, directed, and produced by IYG youth with the help of volunteers, Allen Chilicote, Jason Starkweather, and Sam Doss. Funds from the Daun Project helped to underwrite the production of the movie. (Friends and family of Daunita M. Ringham established The Daun Fund in January of 2004 to honor Daun's memory and to provide funds to support audio/video projects by and for the youth of IYG. Through The Daun Fund, these individuals hoped to both honor her life and fulfill her hopes to make a difference in fostering equality, acceptance, and diversity. (To donate to IYG through this Fund, see the Donate section of the website.)

Present ED, Mary Byrne, started full-time in January of 2008 and immediately began writing an application to the Indiana BMV for a specialty license plate (the first of three applications!) followed quickly by writing down all of the policies and procedures of the organization in order to apply to become an affiliate of the United Way of Central Indiana. Previous boards of directors had intentionally declined to apply due to the United Way's support for the Boy Scouts, an organization that has institutionalized a homophobic environment for their staff, volunteers, and youth. The board of IYG in 2008 determined that it was because the United Way supported the Boy Scouts that IYG should apply and receive financial support from them. IYG was approved as an affiliate of the United Way of Central Indiana in December of 2008.

The specialty plates took a bit longer to get approved, actually two additional applications and a law suit to be exact! After being turned down twice with no stated reason, IYG approached the Indiana ACLU to take on a suit charging the Indiana BMV with lack of transparency and requesting that all requirements for the plate be made public. The BMV requested that the suit be settled, omitted no wrong doing, but conveyed to IYG that if an application was again received with all paperwork and attachments (another 500 signatures!), it would be "highly likely" to be approved. 2012 will be the first year for the IYG specialty plate which is the first specialty license plate in the country for an LGBT organization (as far as we can determine).

Building caring communities

With the addition of a third full-time staff member in 2008, IYG has been able to spend much more time and energy on advocacy and in the community providing trainings, workshops, and speaking engagements. Whether it's working with the Indianapolis Public Schools to unblock positive-LGBT websites like IYG's, PFLAG's, or GLSEN's or with the state legislature to amend the law against bullying, IYG is active effecting change where LGBTQ youth are concerned.

IYG has long provided workshops and trainings to schools, college classes, and community groups, but starting in 2011, IYG received a prevention grant from the state Department of Child Services to provide 10 LGBT cultural competency trainings to DCS workers, juvenile justice officers, and workers at other social service agencies. These trainings are held once a month through June of 2012 to 60 individuals. Each participant leaves with a folder full of resources for future reference.

Besides training, IYG's Outreach Coordinator focuses on services to high school Gay Straight Alliances. The staff at IYG are all too aware of the multitude of youth who are not able to participate in activities at the IYG Center, making it very important to facilitate more safe spaces in the community. Findings from the GLSEN safe school survey found that students in schools with a Gay-Straight Alliance reported 1) hearing fewer homophobic remarks, 2) experienced less harassment and assault because of their sexual orientation and gender expression, 3) were more likely to report incidents of harassment and assault to school staff, 4) were less likely to feel unsafe because of their sexual orientation or gender expression, 5) were less likely to miss school because of safety concerns and 6) reported a greater sense of belonging to their school community. IYG's Outreach Coordinator spends a great deal of time matching students and faculty allies together to form GSAs, helping them to get started, and then providing capacity building for both the student leaders and the faculty advisors to strengthen the groups.