Over 50 teens gathered Saturday night at McGaw YMCA in downtown Evanston for Candyland, the sweets-themed spring dance hosted by Evanston Pride Youth Services, Links Pride Youth Program and Evanston Township High School Gay-Straight Alliance.
The event highlights a year-old project at McGaw called Evanston Pride, led by Lawrence Carter, 33, YMCA’s after school programs coordinator. In his role, Carter mainly works with junior high and high school teens, but also wanted to reach out to teens who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, he said.
Carter hopes to garner recognition and respect for the program in the community, and within McGaw’s family of social services.
“No one else in Evanston does what we’re offering,” he said. “In fact, we’re the only ‘Y’ in Illinois providing a safe space where LGBT kids can come together, without fear, without judgment, where they can express themselves and do fun things with others like them outside of school.”
Decorating for Candyland started at 6 p.m. on the basketball court as ‘Y’ members continued to shoot hoops behind them. Competing with balls being thrown midair, thumping along the wooden floors, Carter darted across the court while voices from opposite directions called out, “Where do you want this?” His army of volunteers, including boyfriend Jonathan Mayo, wanted his attention.
At 7 p.m., DJs A.J. Klaproth and Richard Estaver, a teen duo who’ve managed the turntables at several Gay-Straight Alliance events, cranked up Nicki Minaj’s “Starships” and the crowds began to dance. As the teens made a circle on the dance floor, they took turns inside it to show off their best moves to Flo Rida’s “Wild Ones.”
The dance also featured performances by Northwestern University’s ReFresH Dance Crew.
A former Howard Brown Health Center staffer and board member of the defunct National Youth Advocacy Coalition, Carter ties his LGBT programming to areas of focus outlined by McGaw for all its youth services: youth development, healthy living, and social responsibility. “This program grew out of a need. We had that rash of suicides last year and a group of us at the ‘Y’ got together and asked, ‘What could we do?’”
“Our ideas kind of morphed from starting a hotline to HIV testing, and all those things you can think of. I said, no, let’s simplify that. Let’s just have a standing weekly youth group where kids could just come in and talk to each other.”
Carter leads the Monday evening gatherings from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at McGaw. On average, six to 10 teens regularly attend. Movie nights and game nights may bring in more than 20 youths.
The services are funded by McGaw, which also provided the dance venue and security. In addition, the group received resources for the dance from Links and ETHS, according to Carter.
“My ultimate goal is to have this be a part of youth development at McGaw YMCA. I want them to fund this program like they fund every other program,” he said.
Planning for the spring dance began in February when teens mentioned wanting to do a dance. Carter explained the kids, tasked with advertising the event, designed and put up flyers and created Facebook pages. The planning group held a decorating day to create the backdrops, banners, and construct candy motif sets as they ate pizza.
“A lot of this work was done by those kids,” said Carter as he pointed at the dance floor.
When asked about the Candyland theme for the dance, Carter laughed. “The theme before this was Drag Slag! We were like, ‘Whoa! Whoa! No! Slow down!’”
More information on Evanston Pride Youth Services can be found at www.mcgawymca.org. Links Pride Youth Program can be found at www.linksyouth.org.