New center offers LGBTQ youth a 'Safe Place' in Chula Vista

It should be no surprise a new youth center in Chula Vista is bright and colorful. Its decorations include a rainbow-colored, heart-shaped pillow on a bean bag, a rainbow flag on a wall and a stuffed unicorn on a drawer unit.

At its core, the drop-in center at the Trolley Trestle Youth Hub on Ada Street is meant to be a safe haven for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning (LGBTQ) youth.

The first of its kind in South County, Our Safe Place center will offer what staff and community leaders say are sorely needed services for the young demographic and their families.

“It can feel very isolating being an LGBTQ youth in (South County),” said staff member Leo O’Driscoll. “Up until now, there’s been very little resources in (South County) for LGBTQ people, especially youth.”

The center, staff said, is a crucial space to ensure the safety and well-being of the youth. Studies generally show that compared to their heterosexual peers, LGBTQ youth are at a higher risk of attempting suicide, ending up homeless and experiencing violence or harassment.

“We want to change the statistics,” said Patty Chavez of South Bay Community Services, which partnered with San Diego Youth Services and YMCA to help open the center.

Funded by the county’s Health and Human Services Agency, the center puts on health development workshops, group discussions, game and movie nights, and other activities. The space includes a kitchen, couches, a TV, a whiteboard stand and desktop computers.

Near the front door, the center’s “resources corner” includes shelves stacked with brochures and fliers tacked on a bulletin board.

Elsewhere in the modest center, the definitions of terms commonly used in the LGBTQ community — such as cisgender and agender — are printed on pieces of colored paper affixed to a wall.

The “identities wall,” staff said, fits one of the most important objectives for the center: to educate others about LGBTQ issues.

The more the public understands this sector of the population, and the more LGBTQ individuals feel welcomed and accepted by society, the less they are at risk, staff said.

Perils LGBTQ people face, such as suicide, are not inherent, staff said. The dangers are “more of a reflection of society’s issues … of how much rejection and discrimination” LGBTQ individuals face, staff member Kelsey O’Brien said.

One of the greatest concerns staff tries to address head-on is suicide. When an adolescent joins the center, a staff member evaluates his, her or their suicidal tendencies using the Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale, a short assessment that includes a series of questions.

The staff — O’Brien, O’Driscoll and Ali Shapiro — have first-hand knowledge of the issues facing LGBTQ youth who frequent the center. As members of the LGBTQ community with experience in social work, the trio is suited to address the group’s needs.

“Being able to relate to the youth, and having the youth be able to feel comfortable and safe with us, is really important,” O’Brien said.

Shapiro added: “I think for us, this is 100 percent our passion. We’re not just working with youth, we’re working with LGBTQ youth, and that’s exactly what we want to do with our lives.”

Their work also centers around the youth’s families, some of whom struggle to understand or feel comfortable with their family member’s sexual or gender identity.

In an effort to provide them a space to process their feelings together, staff lead weekly group discussions exclusively for families (without youth present).

Once a month, PFLAG, a nonprofit composed of relatives and friends of LGBTQ individuals, hosts the discussions, allowing the members to share their experiences.

Staff and community leaders said they hope the center will create a ripple effect that will bring more services to South County for LGBTQ youth — from HIV and STD testing centers to homeless shelters.

"This being the first step in creating a really strong, visible LGBTQ community for people in (South County)," O’Driscoll said. “I think visibility is super important."

At a grand opening ceremony last month, Chula Vista Mayor Mary Casillas Salas praised the center.

"I'm hoping that we continue to make those strides in our society,” she said. “This center is very, very important for kids to be able to come here and feel safe and feel welcome and feel it's more than OK to be them. They should be celebrated just like anyone else."

Councilman Steve Padilla, who previously served as the first openly gay mayor of Chula Vista, said people forget there are still groups that don’t feel part of the larger community and lack a support network.

"Communities are really not complete until we really value everyone in our community, until we can look into the eyes of another human being and see a soul and see a beating heart and see a valuable human being without judgment, without ostracizing people, but simply showing love and compassion and togetherness,” he said.

Our Safe Place is open noon to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 2 to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Adolescents up to age 21 are welcomed.

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