Colors+ Youth Center offers a safe haven for LGBTQ+ kids, under attack by Ohio’s proposed “Don’t Say Gay” law: Leslie Kouba

ByMelinda D. Loyola

Apr 26, 2022 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Here’s a riddle for you: What goes from 250 to 3,500 and does it in three years?

Answer: The square footage of the Colors+ Youth Center in Fairview Park, the only LGBTQ+ youth center combined with mental health services focused solely on LGBTQ+ young people and their families in Northeast Ohio. It’s a two-for-one organization that holds space for some of the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ+ community — kids aged 11 to 19.

Colors+ is the creation of Kristen and Lisa Pepera, a married team of licensed professional clinical counselors. It all started in Lorain when their clinic co-workers started referring any client who sought LGBTQ+ journey support to the two young women. They were glad to help. The stage was set.

The Peperas soon saw the need for youth-focused therapy based in a safe space where youth could feel supported while discovering, expressing, and revealing their emerging LGBTQ+ identities. To remain accessible to Lorain but also serve Cleveland’s eastern suburbs, they chose Fairview Park, Lisa’s hometown, to establish their vision.

In January 2019, Colors+ Youth Center opened its doors to offer counseling for kids, 11 to 19 years old in a two-room, 250-square-foot space. The Peperas determined the center’s offerings would be client-driven, leaving it to the kids and their families to identify desired activities and events.

Of course, the kids knew exactly what they wanted and needed. They wanted a place where they could create safety and connection for each other and with each other. They wanted community and communitas. Their parents wanted education and insights — and the camaraderie of other parents supporting LGBTQ+ children. Special interests rose to the surface. They created a Dungeons & Dragons club, family movie nights and more.

In one year, participation growth pushed Colors+ to spread into 900 square feet of space. Kids were responding. Kristen suggested they create a support group.

Hard pass. “The kids didn’t want what they considered an old people’s approach,” Kristen noted. Turns out they wanted open-dialogue drop-in sessions, where topics grew organically from those who showed up. Participants could speak up, observe quietly, talk about struggles, or share their latest poem. They called it “Connections” and attendance grew for three months. Then…COVID.

Kristen recalls the immediate panic, “We knew kids were going to need Colors+ services more than ever [during quarantine and isolation], but we couldn’t see how we could do it, and we had this newly leased, space where no one could meet.”

Then magic happened — in a matter of days, with new technology in place, Colors+ flipped the switch to online appointments and virtual group sessions. The electronically-well-adjusted kids didn’t miss a beat, and soon Kristen and Lisa were meeting with youth from nine counties across Northeast Ohio. Nine counties, people — that’s real, organic reach.

Kristen reflects, “You know, when we started out, we thought — even if we help just one kid, it will be worth it.” Despite the pandemic, the Colors+ community expanded as the center provided the social setting isolated kids craved. The Peperas also had a window through which to watch for anyone struggling in the deep end of the pool of depression. A few parents had to be called, a move questioned by some of the young people, who felt vulnerable and exposed. But a mandatory reporter must do their part to protect others. Once the kids understood the calls were based on caring, deeper trust settled in.

In November 2021, the Peperas received barrier-breaking news. The Three Arches Foundation called to tell them Colors+ Youth Center was being awarded a two-year $134,000 grant for operating expenses and capacity building.

Apparently, the fairy godmothers assigned to the Colors+ kids had been working overtime.

The grant allowed the Peperas to sign a seven-year lease for 3,500 square feet of street-facing space just a couple blocks from the old site. Remodeling began immediately, and when finished, there’ll be five clinical offices, two nonprofit management offices, and a large multi-purpose area, where more than one group-sized program can take place simultaneously. Colors+ now has breathing room for continued growth. The large windows will soon display advocacy posters and the youth center will be more visible and accessible.

To celebrate the new space, the youth center has planned special events for Saturday, June 18th during Pride Month. The day will include a VIP opening ceremony, a ribbon cutting, teen-led tours, and a Pride Run to raise funds and awareness. To learn more, check out the Colors+ Facebook page or visit www.colorsplus.org.

In-person programming is back and going strong — but online sessions will continue. Kristen noted, “Too many young people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to participate, have come to rely on our online community. We’ll continue to run the Connections program virtually to make sure accessibility is never an issue for any kid.”

With that in mind, I asked Kristen how the kids were handling HB616, the recently proposed legislation referred to as Ohio’s “Don’t Say Gay” law. The legislation aims to forbid the teaching, discussion, or mention of any “divisive issue” in schools. The current version lists sexual orientation, gender identities, or fact-based history (versus the white-washed world view I learned in public school) as subjects to avoid, lest a teacher be fired. It is a sad, fear-based, anti-LGBTQ move made during an election year by some lawmakers up for re-election, and I was worried about the impact on the Colors+ community.

Kristen carefully protected client privacy as she told me about how the Colors+ young people met on the evening the proposed legislation was announced. Only a couple had heard, so Kristen shared the news. The kids had plenty to say, including some colorful statements around wanting the country to be dismantled and then rebuilt the right way. But not everyone was clamoring to speak.

Kristen noticed one regular Connections participant was unusually quiet, so she asked them how they were feeling about it all.

They were scared. “What’s going to happen to me, my parents, my teachers?” they asked.

Kristen didn’t pretend all was well, but she did offer encouragement. “We’re going to get through this together. And there are others out there fighting for us.” Kristen responded, as soothingly as honesty allowed. “Somehow, eventually, we’ll be alright.”

Somehow, eventually, we must. Because these brave young people are our future and our now. They represent our shared civil rights to freely exist and walk in authenticity.

Colors+ Kids, I stand with you. Let’s get through this together.

Leslie Kouba, a lifetime resident of Northeast Ohio and mother of four completely grown humans, enjoys writing, laughing, and living in Cleveland with her wife, five cats, and a fat-tailed gecko named Zennis. You can reach her at [email protected].

Leslie Kouba

Leslie Kouba columnist for cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer. January 14, 2022