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updated: 10/18/2012 2:26 PM

Youth Outlook supports LGBTQ teens

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On the national stage, homosexuality is mired in politics and science and religion. The hows and whys are debated right along with the who can and who can't.

But none of that matters much to the high school freshman feeling the blush of a crush, the uncertainty of the other's feelings, the sense of estrangement because the crush isn't on the "right" person, and the fear of what would happen if everyone found out.

And none of that matters to the teens who know how they feel, have told their families and friends who they are, and who go to school every day hoping this is the day no one whispers behind their backs, the day no one mocks them in the hallway, the day no one throws them against a locker.

Youth Outlook, a Naperville-based nonprofit group serving four counties, aims to provide a safe environment for teens who are homosexual or bisexual, questioning or uncomfortable in their gender identity, or just generally uncertain.

The organization staffs drop-in centers in DuPage, Kane, Whiteside and DeKalb counties, and offers a youth leadership program and recreational activities. Through community education programs, Youth Outlook volunteers work with school districts and corporations to change the social culture that makes youth feel threatened.

The Dare to Dream Gala on Friday, Oct. 19, is Youth Outlook's largest annual fundraiser, with proceeds supporting the drop-in centers. Lesbian comedian Suzanne Westenhoefer headlines the event, which also includes community awards for individuals and organizations.

Today, Youth Outlook Executive Director Nancy Mullen tells us more about the organization.

Q. What is your mission?

A. Youth Outlook is committed to creating a safe, supportive and respectful environment for youth, whether they identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or gender-variant. Youth Outlook's programs facilitate ongoing personal growth and the development of a positive identity for the people we serve.

Q. How do you work toward accomplishing that goal?

A. Youth Outlook provides wellness education on a variety of topics, leadership development and social space. We also conduct community education programs for organizations such as school districts and corporations in order to change the social atmosphere that imperils LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning) youth.

Q. Who do you serve?

A. Youth Outlook is the only agency in the DuPage, Kane, Whiteside and DeKalb counties dedicated solely to serving LGBTQ youth. Since our beginning in 1998, Youth Outlook has expanded our services, now offering four drop-in centers in four counties as well as a youth leadership program, a group for transgender youth, off-site recreational activities and mobile programming. In 2012, we expanded to begin cooperative programming at the middle school level to accommodate youth who are coming out earlier.

Q. When and why did Youth Outlook start? How has it grown?

A. We had our beginnings in 1996 when a group of community members in DuPage County met to discuss their concerns over the lack of area resources for LGBTQ youth. Two years later, Youth Outlook was up and running with our first drop-in center, our first grant and our first executive director.

Since that time, Youth Outlook (formerly Questioning Youth Center) has been committed to providing a safe, supportive and respectful environment for adolescents, whether they identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or questioning. Youth who identify as allies are welcome in all our programs and settings.

We celebrated our 10th anniversary in 2008, and we are happy to report we've served more than 1,800 youth in that time; resilient young people whom we have been proud to know.

Q. What kind of successes have you had?

A. National statistics tell us that LGBT youth are two times more likely not to graduate from high school. In recent years, we've meet these youth through our youth leadership program:

• John was forced to drop out of school due to ongoing harassment issues. With Youth Outlook's support, he got involved in his local community college, was able to transfer credits back and get his diploma on schedule.

• David, who helped found our youth leadership program, now works for the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance and last year assisted in drafting the anti-bullying law that Gov. Quinn signed into effect.

• Michael just graduated college and is waiting to get into medical school.

• Abby already has her graduate degree and worked for several years as a drug and alcohol counselor in Illinois before returning to school to become a physician's assistant this year.

• Amy has her bachelor's degree and chose to work with mentally ill children and youth.

Q. What challenges does Youth Outlook currently face?

A. Funding is a concern for our organization as it is for so many nonprofits. What we do in the communities we serve is unique. There are no predictable or "hard' sources of revenue for working with LGBT youth.

We also face very organized and vocal opposition to our work, which has the potential to be harmful to our clients.

Q. What would surprise most people if they spent a week with the organization?

A. While things are changing in the larger social setting, our youth still navigate some very hostile territories in their schools. Nationally, the average age for youth coming out has dropped to 12 years old -- a time when youth are at great risk for being alienated from their peer group for nonconformity. Coming out at these younger ages has additional challenges in that most 12-year-olds do not have the cognitive skills to deal with the backlash of their coming out and many schools are struggling with how to keep them safe.

Q. How can readers get involved?

A. Donations and volunteer applications are accepted through our website, youth-outlook.org. Our annual gala is Friday, Oct. 19. Sponsors are needed each year.

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