By Carol Tanis
When Shelley Padnos and Carol Sarosik, a West Michigan couple, attended a conference about LGBT philanthropy, they were powerfully moved. Based on the conference, they took home the feeling that the LGBT community needs to initiate support for its own LGBT issues. “They said if you don’t take care of your own, no one else will, and unfortunately there’s a lot of truth to that,” said Sarosik. “There were some presentations and conversations about LGBT homeless youth, and suicide is an issue. These are 13, 14 and 15-year-olds and that just kind of struck us both.”
After thinking about what they could do, they decided to establish a fund to support programs to help vulnerable and homeless LGBT youth in West Michigan. In August, the couple and the Grand Rapids Community Foundation announced the formation of a fund titled “Our LGBT Fund” to be administrated by the Foundation. Padnos and Sarosik donated $100,000 to be matched one-on-one with contributions from the community. Following a campaign to match their donation, the effort exceeded its original goal, and today the Fund has more than $300,000 in it. Matching gifts to the Fund were made by individuals, couples and organizations throughout West Michigan.
“We’re beyond pleased that the campaign was successful so quickly,” said Padnos. “It shows me that not only was the time right to ask the LGBT community and its allies to help, but that the issue of homeless and marginalized gay youth also matters to people here. The goal of the fund is to focus on the members of our community who are most at risk and least protected. In the short term, we will be looking to help improve the situation for LGBT kids who find themselves homeless and without support, but as the fund grows, it is our intention to expand the focus to include other areas of need.”
In this age of greater acceptance, legal protections and same sex marriage, many LGBT youth are still being ostracized, bullied or thrown out of their homes because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. If they are homeless, they are more likely to succumb to substance abuse and/or suicide.
A press release from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation cites research from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, which reported in 2012 that LGBT youth make up about 40 percent of the youth homeless population. LGBT youth are 7.4 times more likely to experience sexual violence than heterosexual homeless youth. LGBT youth, once homeless, are at higher risk for victimization, mental health problems and unsafe sexual practices. Additionally, LGBT homeless youth commit suicide at twice the rate of straight homeless youth.
“We’re anxious to see how we can change things here in West Michigan when it comes to how young LGBT people are regarded,” said Sarosik. She added that they are in the process of learning more about the issue in West Michigan and have been speaking with local social service providers. “We’ll be talking with stakeholders in this, including perhaps parents, the courts, teachers and police departments. Reasons why there’s such a high rate of homelessness among LGBT youth include parents who say, ‘You can’t be here if you’re going to live like that.’ We’ll want to have an emphasis on education for parents and for perhaps churches.”
Diana Sieger, president of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, said the LGBT Fund fits well with the work the organization already does. “The Community Foundation is supportive of Our LGBT Fund because of our focus on diversity and inclusion. We also have a history of work in housing and ending homelessness and we value bringing equity to underserved populations including youth.”
She said the funds will support programs in metro Grand Rapids, as well as those in counties adjacent to Kent County. “We hope to serve West Michigan,” said Sieger. “The funds are targeted for the homeless LGBT youth population, and the committee reviewing the requests will decide what areas to be funded. The group that formed to create the fund was adamant that the focus, at least initially, should be on the vulnerable homeless youth who have been alienated possibly from their families, friends and others. We need to reach this population and gain their trust.”
Richard Roane is a long time donor to the Community Foundation and a member of its LGBT Advisory Committee. His husband, Leandro Robles, served on the cabinet campaign for the Fund. Roane said they’re both excited about being able to focus their contributions directly in an area that is close to their hearts. “Shelley and Carol have provided inspiration and leadership to our community by establishing the Fund, and we hope that through their inspiration, many others in the community will follow their lead and help grow the Fund,” Roane said. “We hope to see awareness raised concerning LGBT youth in our city and see money raised to meet these needs as they are identified.”
He added that West Michigan is known nationally as one of the most philanthropic communities in the country and he hopes to see the Fund grow along those lines of established and historic levels of giving.
Mira Krishnan, CEO of The LGBT Network in Grand Rapids, said the Fund signals a new phase in LGBT advocacy. “We have an opportunity not just to have things done for our community by others in power, but to improve the welfare of some of the most at-risk LGBT people in a way that is done by, from and of LGBT people,” Krishnan said.
“The Network is proud to support Our LGBT Fund in a number of ways,” she continued. “Many of our members are donors and we will continue to help promote it to the community and raise awareness. We also have a role in making sure that the broad continuum of LGBT voices are heard in the funding process, from creation and endowment to grant-making and stewardship. Additionally, we believe that, although a continuum of services are required to tackle tough problems like LGBT youth homelessness, we are uniquely poised to contribute to primary prevention, which will be the most important tool in progressing to a world where no youth has to be homeless.”
She added that many LGBT youth are homeless because they don’t receive support for the development of their gender or sexual identities from their families. “We are tackling this already, and we will continue to do more through our active group programming, including our LGBT youth group and our support groups for parents.”
Sarosik said while they’ve reached their initial financial goal, they will continue to actively solicit funds. “The next phase of the project will be writing letters to businesses, other foundations, universities and affinity groups that are gay-friendly,” she said. “Our goal is to raise a million dollars in order to do something about this problem and make it go away. It’s a very ambitious project for us and West Michigan. It’s going to take a lot of people and effort, but we’re going to do it!”