By Rich Arenschieldt
At first glance, Brandon Wilke, Bob Briddick, and Melelani Petersen couldn’t be more dissimilar. One is an exceptionally socially aware Millennial, one is an elder-statesman of the gay community, and one is a creatively motivated lesbian Latina—each representative of Houston’s LGBT melting pot, happily influencing the lives of others in various ways.
Brandon Wilke started volunteering at Montrose Grace Place six years ago when it was hosted by Grace Lutheran Church on Waugh Drive (which recently became a “restart” community known as Kindred).
“Grace Place is a once-a-week drop-in center for homeless LGBT teens,” Wilke says. “I started volunteering by coordinating a family-style dinner once a month. Now I work on fundraising and numerous other activities.
“Though housed at the church, our work is entirely secular. We aren’t a shelter, but every Thursday evening we provide a hot meal and a safe place for teens to meet, socialize, access services, and simply get off the street for a few hours.
“Many of these kids have had bad experiences with authority,” Wilke says. “They will often check with us about other healthcare, education, or support services to find out if they are ‘youth friendly.’ The kids aren’t shy about seeking information; however, they tend to reveal themselves to us in a piecemeal fashion, incrementally, over time.
“LGBT youth get services from other organizations, but sometimes those agencies are perceived as corrective,” Wilke adds. “They will tell kids, ‘You should be doing something else; let’s change.’ This approach doesn’t always work. Grace Place does connect teens to other local services, but our strength is that we accept these kids as they are.
“Additionally, we’ve discovered that people simply don’t know that there are LGBT homeless youth. Everyone assumes that homelessness in Houston affects only adults.
“An unintended consequence of increased societal acceptance of LGBT individuals is that teenagers, desiring to express their sexuality or gender identity, are coming out earlier—while in high school, living at home. Many parents are not supportive. [After disclosing their sexuality], some teens feel it’s easier to leave rather than constantly confront their families. As a result, these kids have terrible living situations,” Wilke says. “Most kids are on the streets, some live with those who abuse them—drug dealers or pimps—and some are in foster care.
“What people don’t realize is that many of these young people want to be kids,” Wilke says. “In spite of their specific situations, they want to attend school and have friends. They’re concerned about their appearance, they want to go to college—they want to live.
“As a volunteer, I want them to know that they can have a good meal, in a safe place, and receive love offered unconditionally. In Houston, homeless youth tend to be invisible. I’m participating not only to help people, but to educate others about the prevalence of the problem.”
Food and hospitality seem to be common concerns for groups that utilize unpaid staff to assist clients. The “If you feed them, they will come” motto is familiar to Bob Briddick, 78, who volunteers with the Montrose Center’s S.P.R.Y (Seniors Preparing for Rainbow Years) as a host for their thrice-weekly LGBT “Montrose Diner.”
“For years, this community has been very supportive of me,” Briddick says. “As a result, I’m attuned to the needs of others, especially older individuals, like myself. For some, the aging process has not been what they had hoped for. Many have had to confront unexpected financial and health challenges; others, especially those who have lost friends or loved ones, find themselves somewhat isolated.
“The Center realized that some of our mature clients needed more personal interaction,” Briddick says. “The Diner serves to get people out of their homes and connected to each other. Becoming involved is easy; there are only two requirements: you must be 60 or older, and we ask that individuals register to be part of the program—that way, we know how many people to expect on a weekly basis. We have an established core group of guests that attend the Diner on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays—usually about 35 people per day.”
For decades, Briddick has been playing host to numerous LGBT clubs and social organizations. He now utilizes those talents for the Diner. “I talk with everyone, treating the attendees just as if they are guests in my own home. Most importantly, I listen to them,” he says. “If diners have a specific need, the Montrose Center staff is right there to help.
“The smallest gesture can have the most profound impact,” Briddick adds. “While I was growing up, birthdays were significant events for me. Here at the Diner, we celebrate these on the last Friday of each month. A profound moment occurred one Friday: a guest told me that we had just given him his first birthday celebration, ever.
“We hope to expand the program to five days a week. I would love to extend an invitation to any LGBT senior to join us,” Briddick says.
Melelani Petersen is a vivacious 30-year-old filmmaker who volunteers for Houston’s annual summer LGBT film festival, QFest. Her penchant for activism is genetic: “My grandfather worked in San Francisco’s gay nightclubs and, with my grandmother, was involved in numerous political and social causes,” Petersen says. “My existence was framed by the fact that my entire family believes that everyone has inalienable rights from the moment they are born.
“QFest allows artists from anywhere to submit their work,” she says. “As a filmmaker, it’s difficult to get exposure for niche films with LGBT subjects. QFest showings accomplish several objectives: they support established filmmakers, highlight new talents and methods of expression, and inform everyone about what is happening with LGBT individuals throughout the world.
“I came to Houston in 2008 and quickly began volunteering with QFest,” Petersen says. “Since I have a bachelor’s degree in film and video production, I’m familiar with most aspects of the industry and can usually handle anything QFest needs—graphics, formatting, or videography. When you volunteer for a smaller entity, you are involved with every aspect of the work. Additionally, you become incredibly close to those who share the organization’s mission and vision.”
Often, individuals donate their time and expertise to accomplish specific outcomes; Petersen’s motivation is more global. “One of the reasons I am so committed to volunteering is that, through film, anyone who has a queer existence can see that they are not alone. Not only can viewers see a variety of LGBT experiences, but others, who are not as ‘out there’ can know that their experiences are valid and meaningful, regardless of where they live or what their specific cultural norms are.”
Montrose Grace Place occurs every Thursday evening from 6 to 9 p.m. For more information, call 832.819.0528 or email [email protected].
The Montrose Diner happens every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. For more information or to register, call 713.529.0037, extension 222, or email [email protected].
QFest information can be found at q-fest.com.
Rich Arenschieldt is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.