Life can get tricky during one’s teen years and early 20s. For young people identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transitioning, questioning or queer LGBTQ, life can get even trickier.
This spring, Oasis Youth Center of Tacoma opened its first satellite location hosting free, fun, once-a-week drop-in sessions at the Key Peninsula Civic Center for young people ages 14-24. Oasis offers a safe and supportive environment where Key Peninsula youth who identify as LGBTQ can learn, connect and thrive alongside their peers and adult advocates.
The sessions take place every Tuesday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. At each session, Oasis staffers organize icebreaker games to help apprehensive attendees relax.
“We’re really helping youth break down those barriers, not feel like ‘I’m on my own,’ and recognize there’s a lot of others like them, and there are safe adults they can come to and build trusting relationships with,” said Michelle Woo, director of leadership and wellness for the Oasis Youth Center.
The sessions include time to discuss empathy, build skills to address bullying, brainstorm ways to problem-solve issues with parents, or any other topics that are of particular concern to the youth at the program that day.
This flexibility is intentional. Catching issues as they happen in the home or the community helps address the needs of LGBTQ youth in a timely manner and empowers them to be part of the bigger-picture solution. Oasis is more than an advocacy organization for individuals.
“We want to create systemic change,” Woo said.
Discussions sometimes take place with the whole group, with chairs in a circle and rules against interrupting the speaker or checking cell phones. Other times, the discussion is informal, occurring in small groups or one-on-one.
Each session includes an activity for the day. For example, recently, each youth created a flag to display at Tacoma Pride Festival. Another day they simply headed outside and tossed Frisbees on the lawn.
There are always plenty of snacks—and there’s the freedom to just hang out.
After more than three decades operating in Tacoma, Oasis offers a wide variety of programming choices, activities and get-togethers for youth in the city. Just two months into the Key Peninsula Civic Center meetings, “we’re experimenting, seeing what’s needed, what’s going to work,” Woo said. Future possibilities include a session for younger students; in Tacoma, Oasis hosts special programs for youth as young as 11. Staff and volunteers are also interested in starting an open mic night, a cooking class or other activities based on local youths’ interests.
Young people with a wide variety of needs seek help at Oasis. Timothy K.(last name withheld for privacy reasons), who is now a volunteer with Oasis, originally came to the group after being kicked out of the house and facing homelessness. While family arguments had been extensive and ongoing, Timothy said for his parents, the news of their child coming out as gay was the final straw.
“Everything cascaded from there,” he said. “Being kicked out of my own home was very harsh. To be able to turn to an entire group of people who had their arms open and said, ‘You can be part of our family,’ has been phenomenal.”
For Kadin Brooks, finding an LGBTQ support organization that catered to folks in their early 20s was key. Brooks did not come out as gay until his junior year in college. He sought support first through Stonewall Youth, a similar group in Olympia. However, that group accepts those only up to age 21. So, as a nearly-22-year-old, Brooks set out to find community elsewhere.
“I felt like I needed to do something, especially in the current political climate,” Brooks said. “It’s been a big learning experience. Not only does (Oasis) give you a safe space and a place where there’s other LGBTQ people, but also a lot of these organizations focus on social justice.” He views Oasis Youth Center as in alignment with groups supporting the rights of women, ethnic minorities and other marginalized persons.
“It is one organization out of many working toward goals of social justice in the community,” Brooks said.
Rachel Schmit, a youth counselor and peer leader with Oasis, sees the group as providing young people with a safe place to find out more about themselves. Schmit enjoys “being able to come to Oasis and feel comfortable with myself.”
“Oasis is so welcoming. A lot of parents will say ‘Oh, it’s just a phase,’ but here, we just allow you to go through those evolutions of yourself. Oasis is a paradise for whoever wants to come,” Schmit said.
The unique struggles of gay and lesbian high school students are a particular concern among Oasis group leaders, who acknowledge that such students face higher rates of bullying and are at greater risk for depression and dropping out.
“A lot of the incidents are small. Maybe a comment, pushing someone or throwing food at them. Small incidents don’t have large consequences. But they happen continually,” Schmit said.
“I am really happy that Oasis has set up programming at the Civic Center,” said Laurel Schultz, program director for Communities In Schools Peninsula.
She said that future plans include arranging free transportation to and from the drop-in sessions in order to increase accessibility.
Pierce County Councilmember Derek Young visited the group during a recent open house at the Civic Center.
“I’m so pleased that Oasis is beginning this move toward satellite centers,” Young said.
He said that the plan for bus service to and from the drop-in sessions is important and necessary, because “transportation issues can be especially difficult for young people.”
As Brooks sees it, misunderstanding is at the root of homophobia. “Society will only get better when there’s more things like this,” Brooks said.
Schmit agrees, saying, “It’s hard to be accepting of something you don’t understand.”
To Key Peninsula youth considering taking part in an Oasis drop-in session, “they are welcome here,” Timothy K. said. “Please come. Find yourself. Enjoy the time.”
To find out more about Oasis Youth Center, learn how you can help or to donate funds or snacks, email email@example.com or visit them online.