The Valley will soon see the launch of the Shenandoah LGBTQ Center, a place with resources for members of the LGBT community seeking health care, social events, housing and legal assistance. As of Wednesday, its website has raised nearly $4,000 with two days left to donate.
Chris Wood, executive director and a co-founder of LGBT Technology Partnership and Institute, and his husband grew up in Dayton. His husband and LGBT friends expressed to Wood that there weren’t many LGBT resources available in the Valley. Wood explained that many rural areas have centers that support the community. His decision was also promoted by the high suicide rate of LGBT teens.
“I realized that it was the choice between life or death for our community in the Shenandoah Valley to have these resources,” Wood said. “To know that they are not alone, and that they are accepted, and that there is a place here for them and that they don’t have to leave to feel any of those things.”
LGBT Tech is the fiscal sponsor of the center, but it’s collecting other donations and grants from the community to fully fund the project. It’s also collecting information on local churches, schools and health facilities that support LGBT people, and hopes to have some of these publicly available in September.
Since announcing the center, LGBT Tech has served as the planning space and has also hosted a listening session for community input. According to Wood, over 50 people attended the session ranging from 14 to 70 years old. This session helped establish their four pillars of resources: health care, social, housing and legal help. Wood is hoping to host another session in October.
“We want to make sure that we are capturing the most amount of people that know about the center and know that they have an opportunity to weigh in in a really big way,” Wood said.
Jay Cropper, a junior performing arts major at Mary Baldwin University, located in Staunton, Virginia, is the president of the Gay Straight Alliance at her school. Cropper volunteers at LGBT Tech and attended meetings to contribute her ideas and point out resources in her community. She also worked to promote LGBT Tech and the new center around campus through her position as president.
Cropper wants the center to not only impact LGBT people, but also shed light on the issues the community faces to the rest of the Valley. She thinks some parts of the area may have political views that discourage LGBT people from coming out.
“We’re hoping to change minds and hearts with this center because it’s important to become educated on social issues and what other people are going through,” Cropper said. “That’s what makes us truly human is being able to empathize with others.”
Cropper also emphasized that people are a resource and that the center will make people in the community feel less alone. She feels that the impact of a donation sends an inclusive message to LGBTQ people living in the Valley.
“It’s important, I imagine especially for LGBTQ youth, to see there are adults who might not be like them but who are ready to have their back and provide this resource for them,” Cropper said.
Chris Cain, the executive director of the Staunton Innovation Hub, has volunteered to create the Shenandoah LGBTQ Center. Her company offers offices and event space to organizations in the Valley, including LGBT Tech.
Cain has spent her life as an ally to the LGBTQ community and has worked to help create safe spaces for at risk people. She was there when Woods announced the center and has helped with the project since. She also thinks having a physical space will bring together people with similar mindsets in the area.
“So many people feel alienated by their communities, their employers, their family, because of who they are and I really feel like connecting them to everything from mental health services to getting cell phones in their hands… is really important ‘cause who they chose to love can sometimes put them in a place of extreme isolation,” Cain said.
Wood hopes that the center will have a huge impact on how LGBTQ people feel about their place in the Valley. He hopes that youth who don’t get support at home will turn to the center for acceptance. No matter the person’s age, he wants them to have resources and feel at home in the Valley. Wood’s position with LGBT Tech has given him skills to integrate advanced technology into the center and its website.
“I’m really hoping that we set the new stage and a new bar for what it looks like to be a community center and offer the services that actually meet people where they are,” Wood said. “If that means that someone can’t leave their home or feel safe enough to come into a center, it’ll help them in a way that is impactful and that allows them to truly be themselves and feel supported in a community where they otherwise did not.”
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