When Rami El Gharib moved to the valley last year, the Lebanon native noticed a concerning void: a “safe space” for LGBTQ+ youth along the Western Slope.
El Gharib, who was hired as a restorative justice coordinator at the Glenwood-based YouthZone, quickly sought to change that.
“I come from Lebanon, where it’s illegal to be part of the LGBTQ+ community,” El Gharib said via phone Thursday. “Growing up and identifying as a gay man, it was important to me to have a space.”
For El Gharib, his safe haven was a nonprofit focused on serving the LGBTQ+ community in his hometown of Beirut. He called it “an essential part of building self esteem and feeling loved” that helped shape who he is today.
Upon relocating to the valley in August and realizing the lack of a similar support organization with an actual physical space, El Gharib launched one by way of YouthZone.
He noted that fellow LGBTQ+ community partners in the valley have also expressed concern about this gap.
“There just wasn’t any place from Rifle to Aspen that [LGBTQ+] kids could go to and hang out and build a sense of community,” he said. “And I thought it was really important, especially with COVID and the lack of resources here, to come up with an initiative.”
According to a 2017 study by Healthy Kids Colorado, 56.3% of gay, lesbian and bisexual high school students in Pitkin and Garfield counties “seriously considered” attempting suicide over the course of a year — compared to 13.8% of their straight peers.
Through his work experiences, El Gharib believes LGBTQ+ youth in the valley “are underserved and face a lot of hostility” within their communities.
YouthZone is a family nonprofit dedicated “to fostering positive youth development” for children and teenagers on the Western Slope, according to the entity’s website. With offices in Glenwood Springs and Rifle, the organization specializes in intervention, prevention and volunteerism for youth between 6 and 8. In a normal, non-COVID year, the nonprofit works with more than 1,000 youth from Aspen to Rifle.
El Gharib wasted no time and, with the support of other local LGBTQ+ organizations, applied for state grants to realize his vision of creating The Space. He was awarded a $25,000 grant from the Colorado Restorative Justice Coordinating Council, which funded the new concept. Located in downtown Glenwood Springs (413 9th Street), The Space opened toward the end of 2020.
Along with its LGBTQ+ initiatives, The Space is unique in that it will include a restorative justice practices component, which is a major part of YouthZone’s work. The organization’s restorative justice program specifically works with roughly 100 kids on any given year, according to El Gharib.
He believes The Space and subsequent programs will provide LGBTQ+ youth with the necessary tools to deal with conflict.
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