Through the Looking-Glass, and what Alice and I found there

By |2007-11-15T09:00:00-05:00November 15th, 2007|Opinions|
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I recently visited the Ruth Ellis Center’s new home at 77 Victor in Highland Park. I had been by the old Center but had never really been inside any further than the front door.
It was not that I did not appreciate the importance of the Ruth Ellis Center to our community and our youth, I did. I have and will continue to support REC financially. Whenever I go out of town I bring back the bars of soap, bottles of shampoo and other toiletries from my hotel and have gotten my “globe trotting” friends to do the same. It might not seem like much but I know every little bit helps.
I did not go in the old center because of a ghost I had conveniently left in the closet when the rest of me came out. The ghost I saw in the faces entering and around the center at its old location at Woodward near McNichols, a tough neighborhood where residents, sex workers, and church goers mingled daily in their separate lives. My ghost knew this life, knew their stories. Cast out of the family home at gunpoint at sixteen, my ghost had lived on the streets, sleeping in cars or in the back of adult movie houses. Surviving by any means necessary ultimately finding her/myself lying bruised and battered in a flea-infested bed in a damp basement room, alone, scared and pregnant.
I am not ashamed of that ghost. On the contrary, I am proud of her. She and her child went on to succeed against all odds. I love her but still, after over thirty years, the memories of those days still cut like a knife. So I never spent time in the old Ruth Ellis Center because I knew that the same situations that had sent me to the streets were still affecting so many youth today and I could not bear to look into the eyes of my ghost standing in the shadows.
But this day I did go into the new Ruth Ellis Center, took the grand tour, and met the staff and some of the young people. Myra Wahlman and I had come to deliver over $500 raised for the center at the Sept. 19 HRC @ HRC event held at the Hard Rock Cafe in downtown Detroit.
I could have just mailed a check but a chance encounter at the event made me want to go to the Ruth Ellis Center and see first hand the work going on at 77 Victor.
Since there isn’t a Gala Dinner this year, the [email protected] event was held to provide Michigan’s Human Rights Campaign members a place to come together and celebrate our community and commitment to the work for full equality by HRC at the national level. It was also an opportunity to celebrate the birthday of Myra Wahlman, whose commitment to and work on behalf of Michigan’s LGBT community, has meant so much to all of us.
In lieu of gifts, Myra had asked that guests make a contribution to the Human Rights Campaign but she also had the Ruth Ellis Center on her birthday wish list.
Before the entertainment by the incomparable Barbara Payton began, Myra asked from the stage if everyone in the Hard Rock Cafe would dig a little deeper in their pockets and make a cash donation to the Ruth Ellis Center. By this time the audience included not just the HRC party-goers but regular patrons trying to enjoy the dinner and probably wondering what was going on.
When I reached one table there was a family dining who were not part of our group. One of the daughters, about nine or ten years of age, took a dollar from her little purse and put it into the basket. Her mother said, “I could not hear everything that woman was saying but I heard it was about helping kids. So I have to help too. They are all our kids.” She then placed a crisp ten dollar bill into the basket. Her words “I have to help too. They are all our kids,” stayed with me, haunted me pulled me back to the closet where my inner ghost waited.
When we finally coordinated our schedules, Myra and I went check in hand, to meet with Grace McClelland, executive director at the Ruth Ellis Center. We sat in the chilly downstairs office and talked about the Center. It was chilly because there was no heat. In the rehab of the space a new furnace was put in to heat the youth space but there was no money left to fix the antiquated boiler that warmed the staff’s work area. Federal funding for the Center has been drastically cut including cuts of $300,000 for the emergency program, another $300,000 for Street Outreach and probably $1,000,000 (yes that’s one million) for transitional housing.
The money might be vanishing, but the need continues to grows with 14,880 contacts last year, 3,000 individual survey/assessments and anywhere from 60 to 100 youth each day coming to the center. Poverty, literacy, drug abuse, HIV/AIDS and even pregnancy powerfully impacts the lives of these young people. They are not runaways. These kids are throw-aways (tossed out by their families) or street youth (living on the streets by any means necessary). They are our kids and they need our help – not just financially but as a community.
While touring the center we saw young folk visiting Ruth’s Closet, being counseled by staff, washing their clothes, finding safe haven in a world offering so little and trying to take that back. This was home. This was hope. This is the Ruth Ellis Center.
She was there, my inner ghost, smiling at me. Her pain transformed to hope that she and I could make a difference. We can with your help.
A short wish list includes holiday meats, soda, canned goods, drinks, juices, paper plates/ products, toiletries, twin sheets, comforters, hygiene products, laundry products. That boiler needs to get fixed – which will take money and technical skills.
We all need to dig a little deeper and give to the Ruth Ellis Center. But there is also something else we can do.
My ghost became the woman I am today because some one cared and gave me more than a hand out. They gave me love, encouragement and hope.
These are our kids whose lives are ravaged by poverty, crime, drug addiction, sexual abuse and illiteracy. Do you have time to help a young person learn to read, to show them there is hope, to help them stay in school or just be someone to talk to who understands and really listens.
Our youth – white, black, brown, gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, and straight – are our future. They are all our kids. There can be no throw-aways. WE have to help too!

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Michelle E. Brown is a public speaker, activist and author. Her blog radio podcast “Collections By Michelle Brown” airs every Thursday at 7 p.m. Current and archived episodes can be heard on Blog Talk Radio, iTunes, Stitcher or SoundCloud. Follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/CollectionsbyMichelleBrown/.