A historic moment took place Saturday, as a rainbow flag was raised above the corner of G and 18th streets to mark the opening of Merced’s first lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community center.
For volunteers like Jules Carrillo, 23, who’d spent much time helping to prepare the center for its grand opening, the occasion was beyond exciting and emotional. It was a key milestone that had been years in the making, accomplished through hard work, dedication and activism.
Organizers say the role of the center, located at 1744 G St., is to link the local LGBT population with important resources, support and guidance. “Just seeing something like this open in our community – growing up in this town with not a lot of support. It just pulls at your heartstrings, knowing that people growing up here are going to feel safe,” said Carrillo.
The center’s three board members, Marissa Chavez, 24, Melissa Eisner, 27, and Jordan Cowman, 25, were present to greet the several hundred attendees at Saturday’s grand opening.
“We’re here to direct people to the place they need to be, and sometimes it can be hard for the LGBT community, in particular, to know where to go to find those resources, or to even feel comfortable asking where to find them,” Cowman said.
“We hope to act as the hub for just about any question the community can come up with, whether it be about the process of coming out, or about how to get involved in advocacy work in the area.”
In addition to connecting members of the LGBT community to a wide range of resources, organizers say the center is geared toward providing an environment that’s safe, where people are met with kindness, understanding and compassion.
“If they’re dealing with sexual assault or domestic violence, we want to let them know that Valley Crisis Center is LGBT-friendly, and that’s a place they can go to,” said Chavez, who works for the Merced County Mental Health Department’s Alcohol and Drug division.
Cowman added, “If someone walks in and says ‘I’m transgender, I need to know how to change the sex on my driver’s license,’ we can say go to this address, this is the form you fill out. We hope to do that with just about everything.”
The new center came about after Merced Full Spectrum, a local LGBT support group, 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.
The center will continue to operate with financial support from the local community and sponsorship from Gay Central Valley.
The idea for the center had been discussed for about three years, according to Cowman. Chavez said the support for the center was overwhelming. “I’ve had so many people tell me today that this is long overdue, and they can’t believe that this is finally here in Merced,” exclaimed Chavez. “It’s a breath of fresh air for most people.”
Chavez said another big reason for the center is education and advocacy, and anyone is welcome to come with questions.
During Saturday’s event, Chavez was approached and thanked by a few lifetime Merced residents who said they never imagined an LGBT center taking root in Merced. “It’s very emotional and heartwarming for me,” said Chavez.
As the rainbow flag was raised and the crowd cheered, Cowman said he was almost in tears. “Just the smiles in the audience made the last month or so (of preparing) completely worthwhile,” Cowman concluded. “It was a special moment.”
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). Merced Full Spectrum meets the second Wednesday of every month at 7 p.m. Merced PFLAG meets the second Tuesday of every month at 7 p.m. The building also houses We’Ced Youth Media, a local youth journalism program that publishes a magazine.