by Jessica Carreras
Dan Vander Ley is a 27-year-old volunteer for the Ruth Ellis Center. The Detroit resident is also the brains behind the center’s upcoming fundraiser the Last Drag, to be held April 30 in downtown Ferndale.
1) How did you get involved with the Ruth Ellis Center?
I moved to Detroit during college and quickly found friends in the community. As my schedule filled with events, I was invited to a fundraiser in the Sherwood Forest neighborhood. Until that night six years ago, I had no knowledge of the Ruth Ellis Center and their mission to help homeless youth in the LGBTQ community.
2) How does your own experience growing up relate to REC youth?
I grew up in a rural part of Michigan, where people clung to their personal beliefs, framed by generations of misinformation. I was all too aware of the consequences of coming out in such an environment. I carefully waited, reaching an age where I could support myself and thereby afford personal expression.
When I reached Detroit I quickly realized a worse problem: a cultural clash leaving kids exposed to the rough streets at a younger and younger age. These kids did nothing wrong; they simply trusted the message that everyone needs to be out. They heard the message, “It’s safe to be gay it’s good to be true to yourself.” However, once again, these children lived in a culture framed by generations of misinformation, so when they came out without a “safety net,” they ended up on the streets.
3) Why is the center’s mission so important to you?
Realizing the similarity between the youth at our center and the choices I had to make, I am not only proud of these kids’ personal strength, but their vision for a better tomorrow. However, a life on the street – their reality today – needs to be addressed by our community.
We provided them the hope for that brighter future. We provided them the comfort in being true to themselves. They fought a tough fight with misinformation. And in a way, their trust in society’s broader message took them to a dark place – a place most of us know nothing of.
These are all our kids. We now have a moral obligation to feed and clothe them and look after their well-being as they work toward being self-supporting. The Ruth Ellis Center makes contact with the lives of these kids every day and thousands of times a year.
If the center had more support we could expand, providing beds instead of curbs and education from books instead of the hard education from the streets. I knew my choices as a kid and played it safe, selling out a childhood for a roof. These kids are in a tougher spot.
4) How did you come up with the idea for the Last Drag?
The smoking ban had just passed, and I was sitting on the couch with a few friends. Everyone had their own opinion, but almost everyone had a strong opinion about the smoking ban. That’s when I decided we needed a party. Parties make people feel good, drag queens are fun, Ferndale is hip and charity can benefit. The pieces came together.
I, of course, was wary of the entire idea, afraid it would offend someone, so I spent two weeks randomly talking about it. The feedback from smokers, non-smokers, gay, straight, etc. was so positive it had to happen.
5) Why should people support the center?
There are only three centers in America that provide the services that Ruth Ellis Center provides. Here in Detroit the need for the services of the Ruth Ellis Center are exponentially larger than we can handle. With potentially thousands of homeless LGBTQ youth on the streets, we need allies to stand next to us, to stand with us.
Events like the Last Drag are fun, but there are many other ways to get involved. Come take a tour of the center, invite us to speak at your gatherings, drop off hotel shampoo and toothpaste that you picked up on your last trip. There is so much needed by homeless LGBTQ youth that I guarantee your talents and time will make a difference.
To learn more about the Last Drag, or the Ruth Ellis Center, visit http://www.ruthelliscenter.com.