Toronto
3 min

No longer a child, not yet an adult

The Lesbian Gay Bi Youth Line turns 10

SHORT ON RESOURCES. Youth Line staff and volunteers do the best they can with what they've got. Credit: Joshua Meles

For a youth-driven organization, the 10-year mark is a major milestone. Celebrating its 10th anni-versary this May, the Lesbian Gay Bi Youth Line has seen several waves of volunteers and service users come and go over the past decade.



“You could probably play six degrees of separation with Youth Line,” says Philip Wong, the Youth Line’s executive director. “You probably know someone who’s called, volunteered or donated.”



The Youth Line, which offers peer support to queer and questioning youth across the province, is barely in its ‘tweens compared to their callers. But its 10-year anniversary has triggered a period of self-reflection for the Toronto-based organization.



Over its turbulent history, there have been changes to staff structure, funding cuts from the provincial government in 1995 that forced staff to work for free while on unemployment insurance and criticism over the relevance of the service.



One thing that’s been consistent is the uncertainty of never knowing what the next year’s funding will be like.



“Fundraising’s a really tough environment,” says Wong. People like to do project funding, not core funding. It isn’t as easy as having a bake sale anymore.”



With almost half of its budget now coming from individual donors and fundraising events, the Youth Line gets by on a bare-bones budget ($140,000 the past six years and $200,000 this year including special projects) minimal staff – two full-timers and three part-time staff – and a rotating core of 20 volunteer counsellors.



Part of the Youth Line’s 10-year review includes an on-line survey to gather feedback about the organization and the services it provides. The anniversary has also triggered the familiar debate of whether to expand the Youth Line’s name from Lesbian Gay Bi to include transgendered, transsexual, two-spirited and other sexual minorities to better reflect its existing and potential users.



Midway through a strategic planning process, Wong is excited about the future of Youth Line. “It’s not just naval gazing, we’re re-evaluating all aspects of Youth Line and where we want it to be going.”



In spite of the difficulties, the Youth Line has been providing support to thousands of youth across Ontario each year. Volunteer counsellors take between 300 and 500 calls each month, from youth as young as 12 and as old as 26, which is the cut-off age for volunteers and callers.



The Youth Line is often the only queer resource for youth in small communities around Ontario, and having a place to talk anonymously is important.



“Everyone living out of the closet lives with a luxury that youth don’t have,” says Ryan Lapidus, the Youth Line’s first executive direcor, who served from 1995 to 1997. “There is so much societal pressure to be straight.”



Tim Guimond proposed the idea for a youth support line in 1993 to a now defunct national queer rights group. The idea was well received and according to Guimond it snowballed from there, drawing many members of the Lesbian Gay Bi Youth Of Toronto (now Welcoming All Youth To The Village) as volunteers. In their first six months Youth Line received 1,300 calls and phone records showed another 30,000 got a busy signal. They’ve been attracting approximately 60 volunteers a year in the past few years.



Volunteer counsellors receive 40 hours of training to help them deal with life on the lines – everything from basic listening skills to an anti-oppression workshop to an introduction to health issues like HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections.



“There’s the classic coming out call. But there’s a lot of calls dealing with relationship questions, sexual orientation, health,” says Wong. “Identity issues are the main thing.”



Basically, it’s about listening, Wong says. Both the organization’s answering machine and website state clearly that Youth Line is about support not advice, and listening not judging.



“What’s right for me might be completely wrong for someone else. We’re really cognizant of that,” says Jimmy, a 23-year-old volunteer at Youth Line for the past two years. (To protect his anonymity, we won’t use his last name.)



If Jimmy’s enthusiasm is representative of the overall attitude at the Youth Line, then its future is bright.



“I love the Youth Line,” says Jimmy. “I’m so thrilled to be a part of it. I’m going to continue volunteering until I age-out at 26.”



* The Youth Line’s 10th Anniversary And Youth Awards Reception will be held Tue, Jun 8 at the Metro Central YMCA (20 Grosvenor St). For more information contact Philip Wong at (416) 962-2232 or e-mail info@youthline.ca.



* The Youth Line’s survey, which will be active until Jun 1, can be found by going to Youthline.ca, clicking “Youthline Forum” and then “on-line survey link.”