In its 29-year history, Time Out Youth Center (TOY) has, in one way or another, provided face-to-face support for area youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning. That all changed during the week of March 22, as Charlotte and Mecklenburg County joined the growing list of areas around the country under a “stay at home” order.
Beginning March 16, TOY had already moved all programs to virtual platforms, increased its cleaning procedures and limited on-site activity, having most of its eight member staff work remotely from home. Just as area leaders were announcing the March 17 proclamation for a “stay at home” order which would take effect on March 26 to combat the spread of COVID-19 in the community, qnotes was interviewing TOY’s Deputy Director O’Neale Atkinson about the recent changes. “This is unprecedented,” he said. “Particularly, our ability to keep in contact with youth in this time has been, I feel like, really incredible.”
In a statement on its website later that afternoon, the organization announced that “in response to the Mecklenburg County shelter-at-home ordinance, the center is not currently holding regular workday hours.” Like many other businesses and organizations around the country, the organization’s doors are closed now, unsure when they will reopen. “While we understand that methods of preventing an outbreak rely on physical distancing, we are being intentional about continuing to maintain social connections with LGBTQ youth and to offer vital support for our community,” continued the statement. “The health and wellness of our community are top priorities for Time Out Youth Center.”
“One of the things I think that we are really, really good about is listening to our young people and adapting things to what they need or want programmatically,” said Atkinson. “Before all of this really came to a head, in January, one of our youth Ellie had reached out to me with this idea of doing a Discord server for Time Out Youth.”
Discord is a free voice, video and text chat app for teens and adults ages 13 and up. It was originally created for gamers. According to the company, teens can join a chat they have been invited to or create private servers and invite their friends to play and discuss games by voice, text or video. The center now has a Discord server allowing youth to chat with one another and for staff to facilitate virtual drop-in spaces.
Time Out Youth created the program so that they could stay in contact with youth that could not always come into the center. “It has a lot of functionality,” said Atkinson. “You can do voice chat. You can do text chat. We have one room where one person can be the assigned deejay and can play music, and everyone else can kind of hang in the room and listen to what’s playing.” Members have even used it recently to sync up and watch TV shows together. “It just allows you to connect in a really unique way.” Prior to COVID-19, TOY only had about 25-35 people on the server. That number has grown to nearly 100 users in the last two weeks. Having the infrastructure in place ahead of the crisis allowed them to quickly navigate online programming.
According to Atkinson and the organization’s website, the server is moderated by center staff and interns, and to gain access youth must email TOY directly. “We have a lot of control over content that happens,” he says. “We have bots, like robots, that are built into the panel that can respond or react to certain things. So, let’s say if someone uses language that we wouldn’t allow here in the center, things that are inappropriate or harmful, it actually can mute those comments and give that person a warning.” The system then notifies staff. It also is automated to “ping” the staff and provide immediate resources if someone mentions suicide or self-harm.
Another program available to area youth during the stay-at-home order is Q Chat Space. TOY is part of this national platform launched in 2018 that has proven to be a very useful tool in our current situation. “With Q Chat, we have seven days a week of structured programs that youth can access,” says Atkinson. The center’s staff facilitate programs on two days a week (Wednesday and Thursday) while other organizations around the country provide programming on other days. “So far everything has pretty much been able to translate virtually, which I think is another benefit of us having been a part of Q Chat Space for the past three years.” The organization was part of developing and piloting the program along with Jasmyn in Jacksonville, Fla., LGBT Center Orange County in Santa Ana, Calif., The LGBTQ Center Long Beach in Long Beach, Calif., one-n-ten in Phoenix, Resource Center in Dallas and SMYAL in Washington. It is a collaboration of CenterLink: The Community of LGBT Centers, PFLAG and Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
“This is a time to really be creative and to be responsive,” says Atkinson. “I think all of us here are really on board with trying new things and figuring out what’s going to work to reach the most people.” Staff are regularly updating their website at timeoutyouth.org, or through social media platforms. The website also includes information on how to connect to both Discord and Q Chat Space.
The Time Out Youth program calendar is still pretty full with everything continuing except for physical drop-in space.
A Greater Impact
“We’re preparing that this might become, or need to become, a sustainable model for a while,” says Atkinson. “I’m really hopeful that we’ll actually see more people online than we typically do in person in some of our groups like in Gaston County where we typically have lower attendance.”
The organization is embracing opportunities online to expand its programming beyond its physical location, and even beyond the current coronavirus. Charlotte is surrounded by rural areas and virtual safe spaces for LGBTQ young people have the potential to reach more youth who might not otherwise have the same access to support. “It’s oftentimes those rural outlying communities where young people need this level of support,” says Atkinson.
TOY also provides needed housing case management to area youth. The center currently has six households in the Charlotte area receiving active services and on Tuesday, prior to the Mecklenburg County stay-at-home ordinance going into effect, staff were busy putting together groceries, gift cards and toiletries to deliver over the next two days. The center provided over $1,000 in financial assistance to clients currently in housing case management, in addition to groceries and toiletry items. Counseling and individual support services are also continuing through telehealth.
When asked what the biggest concern was, Atkinson pointed out the ability for youth to work is posing significant problems that might have long-term impact. “We have a number of youth, for example, who had just gotten seasonal positions at the ballpark or other venues,” he says. “With those places closing, that immediately impacts those folk’s ability to work. Some of those people were potentially on a waiting list for a housing program that was going to require they have income.” The center’s case management staff is also exploring options to help youth apply for unemployment and seek additional resources being provided by the state or through federal legislation.
But, what about its own staff? At this point, TOY has not had to furlough or cut back on its staffing. “That is our absolute goal — to be able to maintain our team,” says Atkinson. Staff continue to work on online programming, strategic planning and seek grant opportunities as they expect a downturn in individual donations brought on by the economic crash. As of press time, the center’s annual Gala had not yet been postponed. The event, scheduled for June 19, is the organization’s largest annual fundraiser. The center’s Queer Youth Prom scheduled for April 17 brings together nearly 500 youth from North and South Carolina annually and has been postponed, along with its GSA Summit scheduled for later in the month.
Atkinson points out that financial support is key right now for the organization. While supplies like toiletries and food for clients is always helpful, right now the organization is limited in its ability to get that support to the people it serves.
A Changed World
We’ve all heard that COVID-19 is likely to be an event that will shape a generation. Its impact will reach well beyond the current medical or economic crisis we are all facing. In the end, it will likely have changed the way we think and even react with the world around us. “I don’t know if it will ever be business-as-usual,” says Atkinson. “I think the world will change as a result of this in a lot of ways, but when we are able to open our physical space again, my hope is that we will have taken this time as a team to make sure our space is even better and able to serve even more young people.”
One final thing. I asked Atkinson if he had any personal stories to share about the impact of COVID-19 on our community and here is what he had to say. “The importance of language and how we use language can really impact who we are and how we respond to things. We keep talking about social distancing, you know. And for a community, like LGBTQ young people, that often feel incredibly isolated enough as it is, the idea of distancing ourselves socially even more can be really scary. This speaker (in a recent virtual conference) talked about reframing social distancing to physical distancing while emphasizing our social connectiveness. And, I don’t know, I think about the way that we as an organization, and me personally as a staff person of this organization, are moving forward in our work. While we might have to distance ourselves physically from the young people that we serve, from our volunteers and our community, that we are trying to be very intentional about fostering new ways for us all to be connected socially. And that’s why this opportunity to engage with people virtually is going to be a saving grace, or a saving element, of the work that we do and our ability to move forward. I don’t know — I want people to just, as we have to physically distance ourselves, to remember to check in on people, to remember that you still have community around you, even if we can’t be there physically.”
To learn more about Time Out Youth, visit timeoutyouth.org.
This story was produced by the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of six media companies working together in an effort started by the Solutions Journalism Network and funded by The Knight Foundation.