The Youth Center on Highland

I hate being late, but it took me well over three hours to make the two-hour drive to West Hollywood. I apologized more than once, at least three or more times. Alan assured me that there was no need to apologize, so I apologized for apologizing.

I had driven to Los Angeles to learn more about the Youth Center on Highland, and their wonderful youth employment program. Alan Reade’s company, Text Engine Productions, had designed the interactive presentation of the Center’s Transgender Youth Employment Toolkit, a tremendously valuable resource for helping young Transgender people find employment. On Friday afternoons, he hosts a meeting at the Center, in which guest speakers would offer guidance and encouragement to the LGBT youth who were in search of employment.

Alan was waiting for me in the foyer at the side entrance of the building. “I’m so glad you were able to come attend our meeting,” he warmly welcomed, motioning me to share a hug with him. And although we had only met through emails, it felt like we were old friends, reuniting after some time apart. “It’s great to finally meet you in person,” he said, echoing my thoughts.

la lgbt 02We were joined by Drian Juarez, a remarkable, young woman who serves as the Program Manager for the Transgender Economic Empowerment Project at the Youth Center. I liked her immediately; she was vibrant and energetic, with an incredibly beautiful smile. In fact, now that I think back on it, everybody I met at the Center shared similar smiles. I think it’s because they take pride in the work they are doing, and gather so much satisfaction in knowing that they are making a difference in so many young people’s lives.

Even though I was the culprit who arrived late, Alan apologized because we didn’t have very much time for lunch. It was almost one o’clock, and he had to be back to the conference room by two to greet the guest speaker. He suggested a nearby Thai restaurant that someone suggested to him, and asked if that would be OK with me. I told him that I loved Thai food, but that wasn’t true. I have this terrible habit of lying about little things like that, and I really regret doing it, but sometimes I just can’t help myself. I go along to get along, and I get along because I go along. It’s just my misguided way of trying to fit in and be accepted.

“Should we walk, or take the car?” he asked. I looked down at my high-heeled pumps, not very practical for walking the city streets, and prayed that he would opt for a nice, comfy ride in his rent-a-car.

“Alyce,” he asked, “do you mind walking?”

“Not at all,” I lied. I was getting along just fine.

Fortunately, it turned out that the restaurant was actually several blocks away on La Brea, too far to walk in the time allotted. So I ended up riding in a nice, new, air-conditioned rent-a-car, rather than walking back and forth in the sweltering 95° heat wearing heels.

And best of all, the restaurant offered Belgium waffles on the menu. With delicious, fresh fruit, vanilla cream, and organic maple syrup! Sometimes, prayers are answered!

Rachel Blum, the guest speaker, was waiting for us when we returned to the Center at 2:00 pm. The meeting was scheduled to begin at 2:15, and due to a prior, scheduled activity at three o’clock, they would be closing the Center early. Alan suggested that I take a tour of the facilities while they were prepping Rachel for her presentation.

I was escorted by a young man named Andrew Montejo, who came across as a kind of authority figure, though not at all in a menacing way. More like a big brother, someone you respect and would never dare think of crossing.

He showed me the area where the young men and women would hang out and socialize, or rehearse their dance moves in the practice room. We talked about the importance of community, the need to know that you aren’t alone, and that there are many others out there just like you.

But the Youth Center isn’t just about hanging out with friends and having fun. It’s primarily about education, employment, and ultimately, acceptance and self-discovery.

Off to the side, there’s a large, open room with two dozen or more computer work stations, where these young women and men have access to a better life. Where they can earn their GEDs, get the necessary training in order to secure a decent job, and thereby open up a world of new and better opportunities for their future.

There’s another, smaller room with a half-dozen or more work stations, where those who are so inclined to further their education can take college level courses. Education is the natural enemy of ignorance, and the shadow of ignorance will fade in the cast of enlightenment.

Often, the Center has to deal with physical realities in addition to providing social activities, career preparation and educational services. There are the obvious problems: homelessness, addiction, health care and the sex trade. But the small details, so often overlooked, are vital to breaking the cycle of failure and falsely perceived worthlessness.

Employment is the key that unlocks the door to a successful life. But to get that key, you have to sell yourself to the perspective employer. That’s why we shower, shave, apply our makeup, and put on our finest clothes when we go for a job interview.

But what if you’re living out on the street, and you haven’t showered in a week. Your clothes are worn, torn and filthy from dirt, grime and sweat. You haven’t had a haircut in ages, and a restful night’s sleep out on the street is a rarity.

What are your chances of getting that job?

And if that isn’t enough, you’ve been told your entire life that you’re a worthless freak. You’ve heard it so often that you actually start to believe it.

How the hell are you going to sell yourself to the interviewer, when you don’t believe that your life has any value?

And with each and every rejection, your sense of self-worth diminishes even further, until one day you just give up trying. You ask yourself, “What’s the point?” and stop going to interviews.

The Youth Center on Highland does not permit that to happen.  Their commitment to those young people does not end with a simple job training program; they make certain that every one of those small details are addressed.

There are washers and dryers in the Center where they can clean their soiled clothes. There are showers where they can wash up for their interviews. And although they don’t offer housing, there are bunk beds for emergency situations, where job applicants can rest up prior to their interviews.

la lgbt 03But the thing that got to me was when Andrew unlocked the door to a room that could best be described as a hybrid between a closet and a store room. There were two racks crammed with used clothing that was donated to the Center. Clothing to be worn by the youngsters for their big interview.

As a transgender woman, I know exactly how important clothing is to one’s sense of self. I can imagine a young man in one of those suits, or a young lady wearing some silky, white blouse and black slacks, or a transgender youth choosing gender appropriate clothing to wear. These young people are given a gift, but the gift is more than an old, unwanted garment. It’s the gift of self worth.

***

Rachel Blum gave an outstanding presentation, and the young men and women were captivated by her story. They showed a real interest in learning more about programming as a profession, and asked her many questions about the industry.

After Rachel concluded her presentation, I was asked to say a few words about my writing and the TCC’s Visibility Magazine.  I told them it was something I always wanted to do, but lacked the confidence to pursue it as a profession. I wasted too many years of my life lying about myself in order to please others. I was late coming to the game.

The kids were intelligent, well-mannered, and extremely articulate. I like them a lot.

Please check out the The Youth Center on Highland’s Transgender Youth Employment Toolkit and the Youth Education Program.

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Alyce Anders, Alan Reade & Rachel Blum