Kaleidoscope Youth Center Provides Resources to Queer Youth of Color in Columbus

During the pandemic, Kaleidoscope Youth Center has shifted how it offers essential support, especially for people of color.

Deb Rycus
Karen Hewitt, deputy director of Kaleidoscope Youth Center, and Amanda Erickson, director of education and outreach, pack to-go resource bags.

For 27 years, Kaleidoscope Youth Center has given people in the LGBTQ community from ages 12 to 20 a place where they can shed their defenses against an unkind world. “They get to set down their proverbial armor,” says Erin Upchurch, KYC’s executive director.

Dae Dae, a gregarious teen whose smile lights up a Zoom screen, swears he was anti-social before he came to the Downtown drop-in center. “If you don’t feel comfortable talking about who you are, at KYC, you can express yourself,” he says, pointing out that Kaleidoscope is full of people who give him compliments—not criticism—for the wigs he matches to his moods.

The pandemic magnified the needs of young people like Dae Dae. Cut off from natural support systems at places like KYC, which suspended drop-in hours in March 2020, they lost connections with those who offer emotional lifelines. Some feel unsafe spending more time at home with parents who reject their sexuality or gender identity.

But the pandemic was only one burden of the past year. Karen Hewitt, KYC’s deputy director, leads the affinity group QPOC, or Queer People of Color, which supports the unique needs of youths who face discrimination on multiple fronts. This intersectionality represents a massive emotional weight in the best of times, but constant debates around Black lives and transgender rights can take a heavier mental toll. Nearly half of KYC’s community participates in QPOC.

Karen Hewitt, deputy director of Kaleidoscope Youth Center in the game, arts and music room.

“As a group, we were collectively fatigued sooner,” says Hewitt, who saw QPOC regulars called to support their families financially or to run households while their parents worked the frontline jobs disproportionately filled by people of color.

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The pandemic showed QPOC staff that they had to carry out their mission of offering culturally sensitive support in a different way. First, they took a hard look at what young people really need—it wasn’t more video calls. In fact, they wanted fewer such interactions after days spent speaking on camera.

It took a huge shift in thinking to inspire something simple: texting. Now, personalized messages from staff members—sometimes just “You good?” or a silly GIF—help connect QPOC participants to staff. Kaleidoscope created a way to talk and share experiences during weekly check-ins on the chat app Discord, which also hosted more structured programming, like movie nights. KYC clocked over 4,000 Discord “visits” in just seven months. Response has been so positive, the center plans to keep the Discord server up once drop-in hours resume.

New video panel discussions allow QPOC members to see themselves in the stories of community advocates—to feel represented. Young people are never pressured to speak, but they can become panelists if they’d like to share. KYC’s Facebook page hosts videos about racism and gender-affirming health care, as well as an intergenerational look at race, gender identity and sexuality with Terrance Dean, an author and Denison University professor in Black studies.

At a time when QPOC youth need it most, these programs have made support more accessible until KYC reopens, hopefully later this summer. For Dae Dae, Kaleidoscope is more than just a port in a storm—it’s a safe place to decompress. “I can just zone out. The fullness of who I am gets to exist.”