After months of planning, Merced’s first Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center is ready to open its doors later this month.
With a growing LGBT population, the center is long overdue, organizers said. The center, located on 1744 G St., will officially start operating on Aug. 30, with a grand opening from 1 to 3 p.m.
Organizer Marissa Chavez, 24, said the idea of opening the center in Merced came from noticing how much the community needs a place that offers support and guidance.
Chavez, who is a Merced native and president of Merced Full Spectrum, an LGBT support group, remembers her years as a student at Golden Valley High School, and how difficult it was to find resources for the LGBT community.
“I always wished we had something like this here,” Chavez said. “When I was in high school, there was nowhere for me to go and get information. At the time, we didn’t even have a Gay-Straight Alliance (student group) in the school.”
After high school, Chavez left Merced to attend college at UC Davis. When she came back, she decided to take matters into her own hands. “It’d been a few years, and there was still nothing going on, so I thought, ‘Why don’t I just do something about it?’ ”
Chavez and members of Merced Full Spectrum reached out to Gay Central Valley, its parent nonprofit group in Fresno, to inquire about opening a center in Merced. Together the groups worked on fundraising and obtained a $20,000 grant from the California Endowment.
Funding will be used mainly for programming, Chavez said. One of the main focal points is to get Gay-Straight Alliances in local high schools that don’t have one. While Golden Valley High School has started a GSA since Chavez’s years as a student, schools such as Merced High and Livingston High still lack such programs. The biggest obstacle is finding advisers willing to lead the student club, Chavez said.
“Even with schools that do have a GSA ... we’re not sure if the GSAs are going to stick around because there aren’t advisers who stick around every year,” Chavez said. “The GSAs are really dependent on being able to find an adviser, and that can sometimes be very troublesome.”
Chavez, who works for the Merced County Mental Health Department Alcohol and Drug division, says she sees an increasing number of LGBT youths who would benefit from an outreach center in her after-school mentoring program.
“They have been telling me that the reason they signed up to my after-school program is because they see me being so out and open,” Chavez said. “It’s just nice to be that role model for kids, and I definitely think our community needs it.”
The center will serve as a meeting space for Merced Full Spectrum, as well as Merced PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), which meets every second Tuesday of the month. Movie nights will be hosted for the public twice a month. According to organizers, the center will be open to any local club or group looking for a space to meet.
“We really want to focus on the ‘community’ part,” Chavez said. “Everyone is welcome. You don’t have to identify (as LGBT). You can definitely be a straight ally. It is a free space, and all of our programs are free of charge.”
According to Jordan Cowman, treasurer of Merced Full Spectrum, the center wants to team up with local public agencies to be able to offer a wide array of services. “We’re looking to make sure that the best partnerships are made between Planned Parenthood, the Valley Crisis Center, the Department of Public Health and any other agencies willing to work with us. We’d really like to be a one stop shop.”
Another group benefiting from the opening of the Merced LGBT Community Center is We’Ced Youth Media, a youth journalism program, whose members will have two offices of their own at the site. Andres Reyes, editor of the We’Ced publication and coordinator of the youth program, said since the program started in 2011, its members have been meeting in borrowed spaces.
“For us this is a milestone in being able to feel like we’re establishing ourselves in the community and actually have an official place to meet,” Reyes said. “This allows us to offer a safe space for our youth, where they can work or just hang out.”
Anyone interested in hosting a group at the Merced LGBT Community Center can contact organizers through www.lgbtmerced.org.