YMCA’s Pioneering Effort: New LGBTQ Center

Photo by Christian Leonard / Burbank Leader
Burbank YMCA officials Bryan Snodgrass, Rob Rodriguez and Fernanda Tenorio sit on beanbag chairs in the nonprofit’s new Social Impact Center. A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the LGBTQ resource facility is scheduled for next Friday.

Next week will hold two “firsts” for the Burbank LGBTQ community.

On Tuesday, Mayor Bob Frutos is expected to proclaim June as Pride Month for the first time in the city’s history. And on Friday at 6 p.m., the local YMCA will hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony presenting its new Social Impact Center — which representatives believe is the first LGBTQ resource center for both Burbank and the nonprofit’s United States locations.

The event will precede the start of workshops and programming at the new center on June 14. It marks what Rob Rodriguez, Burbank YMCA director of marketing and social responsibility, hopes will be a change in the culture of a city where being a member of the LBGTQ community still sometimes carries a stigma.

“I’m hopeful that this center is the beginning to an end — an end of an old Burbank, an end of everyone being afraid in Burbank,” said Rodriguez, who identifies as nonbinary and uses gender-neutral pronouns. “That’s the dream, to now be able to bring an LGBTQIA presence here in many shapes and forms.”

The “I” in LBGTQIA generally stands for “intersex,” while “A” can refer to allies of the community and individuals who identify as asexual.

The Social Impact Center, previously the Burbank YMCA’s gym room, will offer a safe space for middle and high school youth, Rodriguez said, as well as life skills workshops, sex safe education and sessions to discuss identity, pronouns and more — all of it free of charge.

Once a month, a city official will come to a meeting at the center to listen to the experiences of local youth. The Burbank YMCA is also working to receive Los Angeles County certification to offer free rapid HIV testing, Rodriguez explained.

According to Karen Friedman of the YMCA’s U.S. diversity and inclusion team, the Social Impact Center appears to be the organization’s only teen resource center that focuses specifically on serving the LGBTQ community.

Rodriguez said they were inspired by the agencies they went to as a foster child in New York City after losing both of their parents by the age of 11. Having food, clothing, showers and other resources available helped greatly, they said, and when Rodriguez came to Burbank they noticed the community seemed to lack a dedicated space for LGBTQ youth.

“It has been a hard journey and I refuse to be a victim of any of it. I want to use all of everything the universe has provided for me … to channel that and help others,” Rodriguez said. “And when I came to Burbank, I was like, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ There’s so much work that needs to be done and I feel empowered enough to believe in myself, that I can be part of this.”

Photo by Christian Leonard / Burbank Leader
Four paintings that hang in the Social Impact Center represent LGBTQ awareness, social justice, community and foster care advocacy. The “paint by numbers” design is intended to reflect the pressure to design and color one’s life in a certain way and to serve as a reminder to “color outside the lines.”

FILLING A NEED

The pandemic gave the Burbank YMCA an opportunity to assess gaps in its services, Rodriguez explained, with leaders deciding to pursue additional social justice initiatives such as the center, particularly after protests against police brutality erupted following the murder of George Floyd. The organization started planning the center in June 2020 and began renovations the following month.

Besides the financial burden caused by the pandemic and the difficulty of navigating uncharted waters, Rodriguez said another challenge for the YMCA is figuring out how to bring youth to the center while not “outing” them. A corridor leads from the lobby to the Social Impact Center to provide visitors direct access, allowing them to avoid the path through the rest of the facility, where they could run into someone they know.

Fernanda Tenorio, the recently hired youth advocate for the Impact Center, will also serve as a mentor and leader for visitors. As a former Burbank High School student who is also a Latina and a member of the LGBTQ community, Tenorio understands the difficulty of being “out and proud” in the local community.

“If I would have known this place was happening when I was in high school, I would totally have been here,” Tenorio said. “So I do have that passion [to] keep youth empowered and safe.”

OPEN TO ALL

Rodriguez said that while the Impact Center primarily serves as a space for members of the LGBTQ community in middle and high school, it is open to everyone. The center will host programs for foster care youth, and it’ll also hold game and movie nights to allow visitors to spend time with each other.

But LGBTQ youths face some unique challenges, particularly during the pandemic, according to Rodriguez. For those who don’t feel comfortable at home, school may have provided a “getaway” — one that wasn’t available for much of the past year.

And according to a 2021 national survey by the Trevor Project, a nonprofit that works to prevent suicide among LGBTQ youths, about 42% of such young people seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year.

“I think for all of us that is an alarming statistic,” said Bryan Snodgrass, the Burbank YMCA’s chief operating officer. “It’s not a political decision [to launch the center] — as a nonprofit, we can’t make political decisions — but we can do what’s right for the children, for the youth in the community. And I think that … something as simple as putting up a progressive Pride flag sends a symbol to Burbank that this is a safe place for everyone.”

The first LGBTQ resource center in Burbank could also be the first of a number of similar spaces at other YMCA locations. Rodriguez said the local nonprofit is putting together a tool kit to help other branches launch their own social impact centers.

But before then, Rodriguez and the Burbank YMCA have a grand opening to host.

“Once we cut that ribbon it is going to be such a squeeze of the heart,” Rodriguez said. “It’s going to be huge for Burbank, and I am so ready.”

For more information about the Burbank YMCA’s Social Impact Center, visit burbankymca.org/social-impact-center.