For many of us, New Years Day is an opportunity for a fresh start. Whether it’s a resolution to be a better, kinder person or a promise to give back more to the community, there is often the impulse to reinvent ourselves in some way. It’s been nearly six years since I ran away from home and started life on my own. In my time living with different foster families and working at various part-time jobs, I became accustomed to the notion of a “fresh start.” Each time, there was a new set of rules, new friends, new “me.”
Starting over is not uncommon for LGBTQ youth faced with a dangerous situation at their school or home, and subsequently run away or re-locate. Or possibly, coming out has isolated them from their group of friends and they need to start anew. When I look back at my own experiences, I realize that starting over again and again shaped me in ways that were both positive and negative. On the one hand, I became more adaptable, diplomatic, and open to change in general. On the other hand, I was unsure about who I was at times.
What helped most throughout the process of starting again was not doing it alone. I recently got back in touch with a childhood friend, Jake Carter. Before I had the support of Point Foundation’s network of LGBTQ students and professionals, I met Jake in middle school. Years later, on the afternoon that I ran bare-foot and crying from my house, Jake found me in his family’s blue minivan; the next day, he lent me his flip-flops to wear to school and his family offered me a room to stay in.
As serendipity would have it, Jake’s dorm room ended up directly above mine in college. I’ve seen him grow through many of his own life changes and “fresh starts.” Jake came out to family and friends while in college and he’s had many achievements in the time I’ve known him. He studied abroad for a semester in Amsterdam, where he conducted qualitative research on community-organizing strategies used by organizations whose missions were to combat homophobia and transphobia. Jake also interned at the Lesbian Gay Community Network of Western Michigan (the Network), where he reinvigorated the LGBTQ youth program. Together with another group facilitator, Jake has more than tripled participation in the Network’s youth and young adult groups. In just a few years, he immersed himself in the community and found ways to make a significant difference.
Jake continues to grow the LGBTQ youth program at the Network, helping to build a leadership team made up entirely of youth. The group sponsors guest speakers from the community and serves as a support network for each other. He said, “I am inspired by the potential that these youth have. They break down preconceived notions—we could learn a lot from them.”
Jake is now pursuing a Masters in Social Work and serves as a crisis counselor at the Bridge of Arbor Circle, a safe shelter for runaway and homeless youth. The Network and Arbor Circle organizations recently received a large collaborative grant from the LGBT Fund at Grand Rapids Community Foundation. The grant will no doubt bring to life a number of amazing programs and services dedicated to LGBTQ youth in West Michigan.
Jake and I have come a long way from the people we were when we first met in middle school. We’ve each had times when we’ve had to start over and build up our lives again. I’m glad I decided not to go it alone when I moved out on my own. Jake played a large role in helping me find my place after my life was uprooted, but I was also supported by the nonprofit services that were made available for runaway youth and by Point Foundation, who made it possible for me to attend college. Over time, I’ve learned not to give up and tune everyone out, even if it feels like the best thing to do is to start totally anew. The process doesn’t have to happen alone.
In a few months, I’ll be moving across the country to start a new job in Seattle. It’s comforting knowing that there are people cheering me on from afar. Jake knows that I’ll be cheering him on, too. This January, I hope that you’ll take the time to provide support to someone who needs it, whatever their goals for the new year.
This post was written by Allan Gimour & Eric Jirgens Point Scholar Xinyi Ou
Xinyi Ou is currently studying history and sociology at Grand Valley State University, the place where she first fell in love with the restorative powers found in academia and social justice. She is pursuing research she loves and creating the kind of change she wants to see on her campus, most recently dealing with gender neutral housing. Her love of learning and activism has always been the one constant in her life even when her difficult experiences with homelessness, sexual assault, and marginalization threatened to obstruct her path to higher education.
Read more about Xinyi.