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Today is Thursday, November 10, 2005


Inside the Kalamazoo Resource Center

by Sarah Mieras, Between the Lines

KALAMAZOO - Nestled in the lower level of the CARES building in Kalamazoo is Southwest Michigan's only resource point for LGBT people. A patchwork of small rooms stacked with library materials, flyers and bulletin boards, the offices of the Kalamazoo Gay and Lesbian Resource Center serve as an information hot spot for LGBT people from Kalamazoo to Indiana and from St. Joseph to Three Rivers.

Nearly five years ago, Sharon Roepke cautiously accepted the position as the Resource Center's first Executive Director. With a background primarily in operating domestic violence, sexual assault, and mental health programs, Roepke questioned whether her skills would be a good fit for the LGBT community in Southwest Michigan. Equipped with a strong lesbian/feminist background, Roepke was also hesitant to join a board of directors that was mostly comprised of gay men.

That issue, said Roepke, provided her with an eye-opening experience as she discovered there are far more similarities than differences between the lives of gay men and lesbians.

"It feels like so often the gay men and lesbian communities are so separated. Overall, I think it weakens our ability to build a community that is strong and has a visible presence," she said.

Today there is no question that Roepke's background in developing programming was just what the Resource Center needed. Since 1999 the Center has blossomed, growing its outreach into the mainstream business community, and now plays host to a regional transgender support group, a film festival, the region's only youth group, diversity training programs, a GSA outreach program, and a senior outreach program.

Unlike many LGBT hot spots like Affirmations or the Network in Grand Rapids, the Resource Center, said Roepke, is not designed as a community center.

According to Roepke, "I take the term 'Resource Center' seriously. We are here to provide information to the LGBT community and to the larger community as well."

Working as an advocate for the LGBT community, the Resource Center under Roepke's direction has grown to include a number of groundbreaking programs that aim to make Southwest Michigan a safer place for LGBT people to live and work.

From diversity training workshops with local businesses and corporations to participation in housing discrimination studies and sensitivity training in senior care living centers, the Resource Center is focused on opening minds and dispelling stereotypes.

"We really like to help organizations and businesses become more inclusive of LGBT people," explained Roepke. "It really is to their economic advantage."

Located in Kalamazoo, the Resource Center is the only LGBT information and advocacy organization south of Grand Rapids and west of Ann Arbor and represents the only information available for those living in northern Indiana. Surrounding the City of Kalamazoo is a network of smaller rural villages and towns. Stitched together by dirt roads, two-lane highways and sprawling green fields, these rural areas are called home by gay youth, transgendered people and gay and lesbian couples with children. In recent years the Internet has delivered many LGBT people from southwest rural Michigan and northern Indiana to the Resource Center's doorstep.

A former resident of rural Cass County for close to 19 years, Roepke said she understands the isolation people can feel when living in small towns, away from urban centers where the LGBT community is more visible.

"At least today people can go online and see that there is a community nearby that supports them," she explained.

Currently the Resource Center's Transgendered support group and youth group are welcoming participants from smaller communities, some of which are close to a two-hour drive from the Center.

"Obviously there has been a large need for support groups like these in Southwest Michigan for some time," Roepke noted.

With growing support group attendance, social groups, and more on the map in the near future - such as a group for lesbians with breast cancer, and a life in transition workshop series - Roepke admits that the Center struggles with its lack of space. However, expanding to a location that resembles a community center, with a larger library area and meeting space, doesn't appear to be anywhere on the organization's road map.

"We are still struggling to maintain our operational support," said Roepke. "We just don't have the funding for a bigger space." Pointing to a desk stacked chest-high with binders and literature, and a pile of mis-matched computer components on the floor, Roepke sighed, "We are crowded, there's no doubt about it. Our library has already outgrown the library facility, but right now we are most concerned about holding our services where they are."

Far too reliant on grant-based funding, the Resource Center is still feeling the pinch from the recession, which struck the Kalamazoo region hard.

"With the recent changes at Pfizer, our United Way support has dropped by half in just a year," said Roepke.

With little more than 200 "paid" members and a mailing list of close to 1,500, Roepke repeated the mantra of most community organizers and service providers, "to keep services alive the community needs to follow its support of programs with donations and membership dues."

As services continue to grow at the Resource Center, Roepke is confident the LGBT community will continue to support the organization, which now has more than three other staff members who work on senior and GSA outreach and keep the office up and running.

Sharon Roepke lives in Kalamazoo with her partner of 13 years, Rose, who has been a "blessed" part of her life since they were in high school in a southwest Michigan school.

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