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Youthquest crumbles

Queer support network dissolves, leaves debt unpaid

END OF AN ERA: Youthquest 'hasn't been able to fulfill its mandate for a very long time now,' admits chair Ray Lam. Credit: Wendy D photo

Two years after an internal coup rocked Youthquest’s foundation and set a string of director resignations in motion, BC’s once-strong support network for queer youth is dissolving.

“We’re in the process of dissolving right now,” confirms chair Ray Lam. The board of directors will hold an official meeting within the next six months “and we have the full intent to dissolve.”

Youthquest has been providing drop-in centres, a toll-free number and outreach services to rural youth throughout BC since its inception in 1993. But the society began to falter in 2002, after the provincial government cut its funding.

Though the government eventually gave Youthquest $85,000 in grants for 2004-2005, then-executive director Randy Keats said the organization would need $150,000-200,000 just to function at a core services level. It didn’t get it.

By July 2004, “Youthquest was in crisis financially” and its bank account almost completely depleted, Keats told Xtra West at the time. A year later, the organization was having difficulty paying its phone bill.

Today, says Lam, Youthquest has no funding and recently cancelled the last of its services. The organization “hasn’t been able to fulfill its mandate for a very long time now,” he admits.

Short on funding, Youthquest dropped from about a dozen drop-in centres province-wide to just five in the fall of 2004-four of which were in the Lower Mainland.

Tensions rose as the organization scrambled to scale back its operations and stay afloat. A split emerged, dividing the membership into those who felt fundraising would best enhance the organization’s capacity to serve its youth, and those who felt all the attention to funding was undermining Youthquest’s primary goal of running its drop-ins.

The drop-in devotees won; they ousted the entire board of directors at the organization’s annual general meeting (AGM) in October 2004.

But the victory was short-lived. Five of the new directors resigned within a month. By March 2005, the 11-person board was down to just three directors, none of whom had been elected at the AGM.

Lam became chair a few months later. In June 2005, he assured Xtra West that the organization was regaining its stability and beginning to rebound.

Now he says the damage was simply too hard to repair. The post-coup directors didn’t realize how much work they had undertaken, he says.

“They were not prepared for the job as directors. A lot of the people were good, well-intentioned people but were not experienced being directors or working on boards. Managing a provincial organization isn’t as easy as running a local community organization,” Lam says.

“Though I respect what they were trying to do-and they had some good points-the way they did it was totally inappropriate. It was absolutely not worth it,” he states.

Lori Gaites became secretary-treasurer a few months after the coup. “I came in to try to spare it when the board of directors fell apart. There was a whole lot to pick up,” she remembers.

“Ray did a lot for it and took it as far as he could and it showed a bit of life,” adds Gaites who resigned after six months on the board for personal reasons.

Lam says he was actually brought in two years ago to facilitate Youthquest’s dissolution, but within a month or two “I realized that Youthquest, regardless of the state it was in, was and will always be necessary. So I tried to revitalize the society and bring it back.”

But there were a couple of obstacles in his way. Lam sees it this way: “There are two really important factors in the success of Youthquest: funding and reputation-which impacts funding. A lot of the issues were, in fact, the group’s internal politics.”

The perception of instability didn’t help. After the coup, donations dried up. The community “wouldn’t support or help us,” says Lam. “People are unwilling to fund an organization that isn’t healthy.”

Three months ago, all of Youthquest’s memberships expired. Now its only members are its remaining directors, and the organization has cancelled all its services and phone lines, including its 1-800 support hotline.

“I honestly do believe in Youthquest and it really does hurt me,” says Lam. “It wasn’t an easy decision.”

“Youthquest was a huge part of my life, it’s really sad to see it go,” says Nathaniel Wolfe, who was one of the first youth to attend a Youthquest drop-in in 1993.

“When Youthquest first came there were no services for queer and trans youth,” he recalls. “It helped create awareness that there are queer and trans youth in these small communities and that services are needed.”

Now, he says, “it’s time for individual communities to step up and offer services for queer and trans youth.”

Shawn Peters would like to step up but says he can’t because Youthquest still owes him $2,000 from a contract he completed two years ago.

Peters received a $35,000 grant, through Youthquest, in 2004 to present a series of anti-homophobia workshops to students in northern BC. He says he recently got a court order from small claims court in Prince George ordering Youthquest to pay.

“Youthquest has filed an application to have that judgment put aside,” Lam counters. “Shawn’s claim was improperly filed in Prince George,” Lam alleges, adding that the court ruled in Peters’ favour because Youthquest failed to appear at the hearing.

“Youthquest can’t go to Prince George because we have no money,” Lam points out.

Peters says he would like to present more anti-homophobia workshops on his own but can’t get funding until Youthquest either approves his final report on the last grant or submits its own to the BC government.

Youthquest “is not only hurting me but they’re hurting all the youth in the northern region because no one is going to talk to these students,” says Peters. “I’m the first gay person these kids have ever met.”

Lam says the board isn’t satisfied with Peters’ report detailing how he spent the grant money, and therefore considers the contract incomplete.

“We’re not debating that we owe Shawn the money,” Lam says. “The final installment will be paid when we feel the contract has been completed. His final report doesn’t contain all the information and details that Youthquest requires.”

Peters is not the only one dissatisfied with his association with Youthquest.

“We kind of got kicked off the Youthquest island without knowing it,” says Port Alberni’s Antonia Botting, who tried to resurrect a local chapter a few years ago.

“We were Youthquest and all of a sudden we weren’t anymore,” she recalls. “Somebody checked the Youthquest site and our address had been dropped and I thought, ‘oh, I guess we’re not part of Youthquest anymore.”

The Vancouver Island group was promised a visit but nobody ever came, Botting continues. “We hadn’t been getting funding for a long time.”

When the support stopped, the group changed its name to Wilde Youth and has continued successfully since with Botting as one of the facilitators.

Similar success was had in Abbotsford where Dean Spyropoulos and a group of committed volunteers have kept the former Youthquest drop-in running, incorporating in November 2006 as the Fraser Valley Youth Society.

It was a seamless transition, says Spyropoulos. “Nothing changed for the youth.”

Spyropoulos is not surprised to hear Youthquest is dissolving. “I had held out hope it could recover but that was pie in the sky. Far too much damage had been done internally as well as in the community. The name Youthquest,” he says, “sometimes resulted in doors being slammed in our faces. Youthquest was getting a bad name in Abbotsford.”

“I’m disappointed,” says Gary Mitchell, who served briefly on the Youthquest board after the coup. “It’s a shame that a group such as Youthquest, with a mandate to support queer youth in small town and rural areas throughout the province where it’s most needed, will no longer be there.”

Peters agrees. “It’s about getting into those towns where there’s nothing,” he says. “Even if only one kid attends, it’s worth it. It’s about getting support to these small rural communities.”

Though Spyropoulos says he would welcome a province-wide network of shared information and resources, he doesn’t believe the answer is a centralized office controlling all chapters. He says each local chapter has its own needs and operates in diverse communities-“some more conservative than others,” he chuckles.

Despite the group’s impending dissolution, Lam is still hopeful for the future. Maybe someday, he says, “someone will start a new Youthquest with a new slate and a new mandate.”