The program, run by HIV North, provides support through a weekly drop-in where LGBTQ+ identifying youth and allied youth come together to explore issues of self worth, confidence and empowerment, but also to learn other skills.
A recent recipient of a Community Impact Grant, the program offers youth a safe place to explore things about gender and sexuality that they may not be able to in their everyday lives.
“For many of the youth, it is the only space where they are ‘out’ about who they are; this includes their preferred names and pronouns,” says Melissa Byers, executive director of HIV North.
“It is a program based on relationship and I have been told multiple times that if it were not for this program, the youth who attend would feel isolated. It is truly their space, and I allow them to take charge of where they would like the program to go. For some, this is their first experience in feeling empowered to make those decisions and have a say,” she says. “It has given them ownership of something important to themselves, their identity and their relationships within the program.”
The drop-in program supports youth between the ages of 13-17 who identify as LGBTQ+ or are strong allies for the LGBTQ+ community. Byers noted the resources within Grande Prairie and area for LGBTQ youth are limited, so the program allows for expansion and flexibility in regard to the age of those it serves.
“It supports those who may be on the edge of no longer being considered a youth when it comes to issues around transitioning and where to find access for that process,” she adds.
Byers notes the program supports not just the youth, but their families as well with a Parent Support Group which offers bi-weekly meetings.
The LGBTQ+ Youth Group has made a difference for one youth who heard about the program through a school guidance counsellor.
“For me, there is a big benefit to the group. I’ve made a lot of friends and I’ve been able to talk through my questions about sexuality and gender openly,” said the youth, who asked not to be identified. “The program has helped me be more open with myself and more confident around others.”
While others have heard about the program though word of mouth, Byers says HIV North’s gender and sexual diversity presentations given to schools are key in creating dialogue and relationship for the program.
“Finding youth who have similar experiences normalizes a lot of what is being experienced and allows for safety (for the youth),” says Byers. “They are allowed to feel secure, and thus, allowed to grow as individuals without the fear of being judged for being LGBTQ+.”
A big part of the program is growing beyond labels and becoming active in their community.
Some of the youth have volunteered within the community because of participation in this program, as we focus on how we can be more active within the community,” she says. “It is important for this group to not isolate further by only focusing on LGBTQ+ issues, so while there is like-mindedness, safety and connection, the growth and empowerment aspect means exploring beyond labels and getting active in community engagement.”
Community Impact Grants through CFNWA have allowed the program to subsidize a variety of activities for the youth, such as visits to the Centre for Creative Arts or bowling, that allow them to try new things while feeling supported.
The grants are not the only impact the foundation has had on the program, says Byers, pointing out the annual Vital Signs Report as a key tool.
“It is a beneficial tool when searching for demographics of the region. It also allows for understanding of what community members and thinking, feeling, or saying about certain topics. It also tracks shifts in the community, which is helpful knowledge to have when thinking about youth programming; it helps create knowledge in where resources may be lacking,” she says.