BOLINGBROOK – A new youth drop-in program will help LGBTQ+ teenagers in Bolingbrook and Romeoville find healthy support with speakers, uplifting activities, a library, and safe dating, relationship and sexual education guided by professionals.
The new program held its first gathering Jan. 8 and will be open the second Sunday of every month. The project is coordinated by Bolingbrook Pride, a nonprofit group formed five years ago to provide an annual LGBTQ+ Pride celebration to the DuPage Township section of Will County, west of Chicago. Email email@example.com to inquire.
The new youth program grew out of community demand to provide a safe space for LGBTQ+ youth in these diverse suburbs about 40 minutes west of Chicago, says the group’s co-chair, Allaina Humphreys. The Bolingbrook LGBTQ+ youth drop-in program also comes at a time when rates of anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide are increasing among LGBTQ+ youth nationwide, especially those who identify as transgender, non-binary and people of color. Among Bolingbrook Pride’s collaborators are the Friendship United Methodist Church in Bolingbrook, and Partners in Pride, a suburban Chicago counseling service run by, staffed by and mainly servicing LGBTQ+ people.
Bolingbrook Pride’s new drop-in program has the full support of the Valley View School District and the DuPage County Township, along with others who submitted letters of support.
“It’s kind of like an extension of what GSAs in schools, and the counseling staff, try to offer together, but it’s outside of the school system,” says Humphreys, referring to the acronym that originally stood for Gay-Straight Alliances and is now used to describe all kinds of supportive groups in public schools for kids who feel “different.”
“With COVID, everyone is struggling with their mental health and with social needs,” Humphreys continued. “Counseling staff are overwhelmed. The need is so great. Add on top of that the extra needs of people from marginalized communities, and there is just not enough time to handle everything that needs to be done, and to be there for everyone. So it’s really important to provide that extra outreach like we’re providing.”
Supporters of new Bolingbrook LGBTQ youth drop-in program include Valley View Schools, local PFLAG, therapists
Valley View Schools Supt. Rachel Kinder wrote a letter of support for the Bolingbrook Pride program to DuPage Township, the local entity that is providing free transportation to the program as part of an overall effort to reduce teen delinquency, Humphreys says.
“Our kids need whole community support, social engagement, LGBTQ+ role models, mentorship, and education in a safe space that an organized group/network would be able to provide in the proposed drop-in center,” Kinder wrote. “We strongly support this community-based partnership and are hopeful that other community leaders and organizations will do so as well.
“Having a resource such as this close to home will benefit many teens in need of support and services and also benefit us as a strong, inclusive community as a whole.”
Another key supporter is a University of Chicago professor and registered nurse who will help the teen drop-in program provide healthy relationship and dating advice for LGBTQ+ youth. Dr. Ariel Smith Malonga will work with the program on a project to “reduce dating violence, depression, and suicidality among LGBTQ+ youth and young adults throughout the Chicagoland area,” she wrote in her letter of support for Bolingbrook Pride’s new teen program.
Humphreys says this kind of guidance is important, because LGBTQ+ teens who can’t find qualified relationship and dating guidance, or who are shamed out of asking for that guidance, can turn to the internet and pornography for unhealthy models of intimacy and dating.
PFLAG Bolingbrook has also stepped forward with support for the drop-in program. The group’s president wrote a letter explaining how many PFLAG parents express concern that their LGBTQ+ teens have few local opportunities to spend time with other LGBTQ+ teens.
“Bolingbrook has many services and activities for its inhabitants, one of the most diverse communities in the entire state,” wrote PFLAG Bolingbrook President Peter Shulman. “However, there is very little for its LGBT+ community and especially its teenagers. After school, there is no place for them to go.
“PFLAG parents in the Chicagoland area will tell you that their children, finding no LGBT friendly activities and support nearby, will often go into Chicago—with its associated hazards and risks…. Local drop-in centers that provide safe places for these young people to go after school hours has been shown to have a life changing effect.”
For many in Bolingbrook, the drop-in program is within biking or walking distance. For those who live farther away and are not comfortable using public buses, DuPage Township will provide free transportation to the program; email firstname.lastname@example.org for information on how to order a ride.
New Bolingbrook youth program provides privacy, extensive volunteer training and real-life LGBTQ+ role models
For now, organizers are not publicizing the exact location of the drop-in program, Humphreys says. They’re following the lead of a larger network of nine LGBTQ youth drop-in spaces throughout suburban Chicago, Youth Outlook. That group began a few years ago encouraging interested attendees to inquire by email first rather than publishing the drop-in locations of their drop-in centers. Bolingbrook Pride hopes within the next year to affiliate its youth program with Youth Outlook’s, which will enable the drop-in program to be weekly instead of monthly.
Becoming part of Youth Outlook would provide Bolingbrook Pride with even more professional input, guidance and resources to offer teens, Humphreys says. Youth Outlook focuses on providing programming led by trained staff and volunteers on the topics of identity and self-esteem, physical and mental health, political awareness, healthy relationships, and other topics requested by attendees, and also helps spread word about the programs. Bolingbrook Pride needs to raise about $5,000 to become part of the program.
In the meantime, most of Bolingbrook Pride volunteers already receive the extensive 20-hour volunteer training offered by Youth Outlook. They’re also trained in anti-harassment and “reporter” training to guard against sexual offenses; and additional video training.
The program will start by focusing on the contiguous Will County cities of Bolingbrook and Romeoville, where about 125,000 people live. Overall, the area has five middle schools and two high schools that will receive word about the new program. Among the most important features of Bolingbrook’s new LGBTQ youth drop-in program: the presence of adult role models who have experienced many of the same challenges of isolation, lack of information, bullying or confusion that today’s LGBTQ+ youth often face.
“A lot of times, what the kids really need is an adult who is from the LGBTQ+ community, and most of the sponsors of GSAs in schools aren’t,” she said. “They’re just concerned teachers who want to be there for the kids… Seeing an adult who ‘made it,’ who came through the same things they did and has something to say about what they did and how they survived … that’s important.”
Bolingbrook Pride’s other events include a teen social hour at the Fountaindale Public Library every third Monday, called PRISM; and a coffee and tea hour for LGBTQ+ adults every second Saturday at 1 p.m. The group also holds annual LGBTQ+ affirming holiday gatherings and collaborates with other area nonprofits on arts and charity projects.