by Summer Keown
A rainbow of brightly colored hands above the entryway welcomes visitors to Indiana Youth Group’s headquarters. It has been nearly five years since the move to the three-story building at 3733 N. Meridian and subsequent renovation which has allowed the LGBTQ+ youth-serving organization to expand services and reach even more young people.
The Midtown location was deliberately chosen. “We are very visible now,” said Chris Paulsen, IYG’s executive director. “That was intentional. When we were looking for a location, we wanted to be on a bus line so the youth could reach us. We wanted to be accessible for everyone, and the elevator helps with that. We wanted a good-sized parking lot and green space. This building gives us all four of them.”
Since IYG’s founding in 1987, much has changed regarding LGBTQ+ acceptance, but much remains the same. According to IYG’s 2020 Annual Report, 25 percent of LGBTQ+ youth who come out to their families are kicked out of their homes. IYG seeks to provide a safe community space for youth to be themselves, socialize with friends, and access vital services. The center offers a comprehensive list of services for LGBTQ+ youth, including housing service options for ages 12-24. Case managers connect youth to resources for mental health, housing, and legal assistance
An independent living department helps youth with homework, completing student aid forms, filling out job applications, and preparing for interviews. IYG partners with the Indianapolis Public Library, which donates books, hosts a reading program, and whose LGBTQ employee group visits once a month to discuss library services. On-site, youth can choose from the expansive food pantry and neatly organized racks of clothes and hygiene items. Laundry, showers, and computers are available for use. HIV and STI testing are also available.
UNIQUE SUPPORT FOR TRANSGENDER & NON-BINARY YOUTH
IYG staff are particularly proud of their Transition Room, a space that allows youth to access items that align with their gender identity. “We’re one of the only ones in the nation that has a Transition Room, which offers non-binary and transgender youth safe supplies,” said Paulsen. The room offers makeup, bras, and compression garments such as chest binders and gaffs. LGBTQ centers from across the nation have reached out to learn how to create similar programs.
Upon opening in 2017, the building became a bustling hub of in-person activity. In 2020, along with the rest of the city, the pandemic forced a shutdown. The needs of the youth they serve could not simply be put on hold and thus, Virtual IYG was born.
Berley Woolen, IYG’s youth and center specialist, explains that their youth helped create the program, which utilizes the group chat and video program Discord. “They were already using the program,” Woolen said. “They suggested it to us.” Its use allowed access from anywhere in Indiana, and sometimes beyond. This led to an additional 250 young people joining IYG’s programs.
Now that in-person programs have resumed, a Zoom room, made possible through a United Way grant, allows for hybrid options of most of IYG’s programs, enabling in-person and virtual attendees to interact, socialize, and be part of the community.
In 2020, IYG introduced Project Prism, a housing program for LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness. In the past year, the program has housed about 50 youth, said Paulsen. The youth in the program enter it through Youth Link, a transitional housing program whose intake process works with them to determine which housing option best fits their needs.
IYG became involved when they were approached by the City of Indianapolis, which asked them to partner with the Homeless Initiative Project (HIP) at HealthNet. IYG provides case management and HIP provides the housing navigators that help the young people find an apartment. The program is part of the HUD-funded Youth Homelessness Demonstration Project. In addition to housing, IYG provides the necessities for a first apartment, including essential items that youth wouldn’t already own.
“When the pandemic hit, we were a drop-in activity center and then we built Virtual IYG and we started Project Prism. When we reopened, we had the largest rapid rehousing program in the city, Virtual IYG, and the drop-in center,” said Paulsen. In response, IYG added six new staff members. Paulsen now oversees 17 staff members, including four IYG alum.
This team is led by Paulsen, who stepped into the executive director role on the same day that renovations began on the building that is now their home. She spent 25 years in the construction industry before shifting to advocacy and community work. “I was well paid,” she said, “(but) it just didn’t feed my soul.”
Berley Woolen, one of four staff members who are also alumni, began attending IYG as a high school freshman. Initially brought by her best friend, each week she would pile into a car with a group of friends and head to the center. It gave them somewhere to go and a community to belong to. Even before she had completed her move back to Indianapolis just before the pandemic, Woolen knew she wanted to be involved. “IYG had a major impact on my life and it always will. IYG saved my life and the life of many of my friends. It also developed a lot of friendships for me.”
In 2022, IYG plans to expand to other locations in Indiana, responding to calls from those in need and adults who see youth struggling. In one city, a pediatrician reached out to IYG due to patient suicide rates. According to the Indiana Youth Institute, a nonprofit statewide youth services advocate, youth who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual are three times more likely to consider suicide and five times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers. [PDF]
According to Paulsen, IYG’s presence will adapt depending on the local needs. “In some cities we will partner with an organization that’s already there, such as a food pantry. Sometimes there will be drop-in programming in someone else’s space. Sometimes it might look like this building if there are no services for youth. We’re talking to a number of different communities to see what they need.”
Expanding to new locations will require additional funding. For now, the pilot program is part of a Central Indiana Community Foundation program called Innovation Catalyst. IYG has plans to announce their first satellite location in the new year.
In 2022, IYG also plans to expand the state’s Genders & Sexualities Alliances (GSA) network, which helps student leaders and faculty create and maintain student-run clubs in middle and high schools throughout Indiana.
The organization offers a robust volunteer program, with commitments varying by each volunteer’s availability and skills. Interested individuals can complete the interest form on IYG’s website or contact the Volunteer Coordinator. IYG has also recently launched the Friends of IYG group for supporters.
For those seeking to help the youth in their lives, Paulson says: “If an LGBTQ youth has one supportive adult in their life it reduces their suicide ideation by eight times. Just having one supportive adult can save a kid’s life.”
If adults aren’t sure how to have those conversations, Woolen advises them to “have those conversations openly and honestly with your youth and be nonjudgmental. Let them teach you. Let them know that there’s an adult in your life who cares and who wants to do better.”
Summer Keown is a homegrown Hoosier who works in nonprofit management and writes fiction and nonfiction. She attended IYG from 1997-1999 as a teenager. Visit the IYG website for more information.