(Crystal A. Proxmire, 2/24/2011)
(Orig. published in Between the Lines, 3/24/2011, http://www.pridesource.com/article.html?article=46052
When 21 year old Angel Carrion left the stage at Affirmations Big Bash, the room was a swirl of cheers, hugs and handshakes from some of the 400 supporters who came to the eleventh annual fundraising event. Although the evening was filled with gay community dignitaries, sparkly Detroit Fly House aerial performances, and tables full of auction items, it was the stories shared by Carrion and fellow Affirmations staff member Kim Phillips Knope that reminded the donors in the room what the evening was all about.
Carrion grew up in SW Detroit, a places he said has no resources for LGBT youth. “I knew from an early age that I was attracted to men. I didn’t know that society viewed that as wrong until I was watching TV with my family and there was a gay scene. Just watching the reaction on my family’s faces made me feel like I didn’t belong. It was hard for me to hide myself.”
Carrion said that to deal with the rejection from his family and the bullying at school, he too became a bully. “I started to feel angry and bullied others who had the courage to be themselves. I didn’t want everyone to look at me like I was gay… Before I found out about Affirmations I didn’t feel good about myself. A friend told me about Affirmations and took me up there. After that I took the bus from SW Detroit all the time. …Affirmations helped me get my transcripts so I could go to school, and now I’m a medical assistant.” Carrion explained that he participated in the Youth Empowerment Program, and is now working as Junior YEP Staff. “I’m now excited to say I’m a staff member and I can help others who are gay going through the same thing I did. My dad used to call me faggot, but now he calls me his son. …I would love for Affirmations to stay open for the next generation to come.”
Knope, who is Director of Programming at Affirmations, also shared her story with supporters. “I came out when I was 14,” she said. “The year was 1989…The AIDS epidemic was exploding. We had no legal protections. There were no gay TV characters. If there were openly gay politicians, athletes, teachers or parents, I certainly didn’t know about them. I remember feeling lonely, isolated and afraid. So, to try and find other people like me, I did what any 14 year old would do, I went to the only gay bar in town, a place called Tramps. Nice affirming name don’t you think? I got in with a Red Cross donor ID card that I borrowed from a friend. With my mouth full of braces and a baby face, I didn’t look old enough to vote, let alone drink. But for me that was the only place to go where other gay people might be.
‘As I crossed the street, a car driving by yelled ‘Dyke!’ at me and I was terrified when I walked in. But it was the only place I knew where I could go and be me. Our Youth Empowerment Program is that place. It gives young people the opportunity to be who they are in an environment that is age appropriate, is substance free and is safe.”
Those who attended the Big Bash help to fund Affirmations and programs like YEP, along with other things like counseling, a help line, a resource library, a computer center, space for activities and support groups, and more.
The event also provided updates on some of the changes happening at the community center. Former Executive Director Leslie Thompson was there, and she was thanked President of the Affirmations Board Mary Rose MacMillan for her ten years of service and for helping steer Affirmations into its new building at 290 W. 9 Mile Road in Downtown Ferndale. “We’re jumping off her shoulders into the next decade,” MacMillan said. On April 3 there will be a celebration for Thompson at the center.
MacMillan also announced that the Executive Director search is progressing. Interviews done in March did not result in an ideal match, so the search committee is looking to interview four more candidates in April.
Three awards were given out. The 2011 Jan Stevenson Award was given to Paul Schiavi who is a pharmacist at Rite Aid, a teacher at the Wayne State School of Pharmacy, and an active volunteer in the LGBT Community. Schiavi has helped with the Annual Health Fair, the Holistic Health Fair and the Transgender Health Fair. He gives Hepatitis A and B vaccines through Access, and gives training to Affirmations staff.
PFLAG (Parents and Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) Downriver founders Mike and Janice Neubecker won the 2011 Lorna Utley Outstanding Ally Award. Not only did these proud parents of a gay son form a support group for themselves and other families, they have taken to heart the issue of second parent adoption in Michigan so that gay and lesbian couples can have appropriate parental rights.
The final award of the evening went to George Westerman, who headed the Affirmations Capital Campaign which afforded them the new location, and also the current Campaign for the Future. Westernman has also forged relationships with donors, including his own employer, IBM. Westerman’s passion for the community center has attracted millions of dollars in funding. And, said Affirmations Development Associate Jeannine Simpson, thanks to him there are sleek tv monitors to program events into instead of “those icky old dry erase boards.”
Around tables decorated with Mardi Gras-themed centerpieces from Blumz, supporters enjoyed a fancy dinner and watched the amazing acrobatics of the Detroit Fly House. They danced, drank, participated in both live and silent auctions, and mingled with other strong LGBT community leaders.
“It’s amazing,” said Gary Roberts, one of the founding members of Affirmations Board back in 1989. “Back then there were people who were afraid to sign the articles of incorporation because it was a public document. Look at how far we’ve come,” he said as he looked around at the sea of people openly celebrating their lives. He recalled how the organization moved around from small places and people’s houses, before moving to the old office in Ferndale, just a block away from their current 16,000 square foot community center where they serve more than 30,000 individuals each year.
The amount raised by the Big Bash is not yet known, but the organization gratefully met their sponsorship goals and sold almost all of the 400 tickets. MacMillan told the crowd, “We thank you for your generosity, for your belief in yourselves, and for your belief in each other.”
For more information on Affirmations, check out their website at www.goaffirmations.org.