Charlotte students participate at Time Out Youth

A Place to be Themselves

For three decades, Time Out Youth has been a safe haven for LGBTQ youth

Time Out Youth began during – and, in part, because of – the AIDS crisis.

By 1991, HIV/AIDs had been infecting and killing people for a decade. The first transmission of HIV to a patient through a dental procedure happened in 1990. The next year, Magic Johnson announced he was HIV-positive.

It was that year, and against that backdrop, that Charlotte-native Tonda Taylor founded the nonprofit Time Out Youth to offer support, advocacy and a space for social interaction to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning youth ages 11 to 20.

Tonda grew up closeted in a conservative, prominent Charlotte family and left home for New York in 1964 to work in youth services. She returned in 1984 when her brother, Sam, was battling leukemia.

Sam contracted HIV through a blood transfusion. Their dad, Dr. Andrew Taylor, also contracted HIV, either while caring for Sam or from transfusions during an earlier open-heart surgery. Tonda saw how isolated they became because of people’s perceptions.

“At age 80, Dr. Taylor took his own life to spare his family the burden of his illness,” reads the story on Time Out Youth’s website. “Sam died seven months later.”

Soon after, a friend sought Tonda’s help for a teenager struggling with her sexual orientation.

“No programs or support groups existed in Charlotte for LGBTQ youth,” said O’Neale Atkinson IV, a social worker by training and Time Out Youth’s interim executive director. Tonda – who’s still involved with Time Out Youth – and a group of teachers, physicians and clergy banded together to create one.

On April 8, 1991, four gay and lesbian youth attended Time Out Youth’s first discussion group.

Growing the organization

Time Out Youth’s initial office was in Tonda’s house. From there, they moved to East Independence Boulevard, then to Holy Trinity Lutheran Church’s basement, then to NoDa and, now, to what Atkinson calls their “forever home.”

“We own this lovely building on Monroe Road,” he said. It was recently made lovelier by a mural that artist Bree Stallings and volunteers painted on the exterior. Atkinson said looking at the mural is “a serotonin boost” and aims for “the whole space to feel like that.”

Atkinson, who joined Time Out Youth in 2013 as director of programs and services, said the purpose of the organization is in its name. “Time Out Youth came about because we’re giving kids time to be out,” he said. “The name reflects that this is a space where they can talk openly about who they were, be treated with dignity and respect, and not have to fear violence or aggression.”

Time Out Youth’s vital work has been supported for years by groups such as The Plus Collective (formerly known as the Charlotte Lesbian & Gay Fund) and the Charlotte Mecklenburg Community Foundation. Both are grantmaking programs managed by Foundation For The Carolinas. Most recently, The Plus Collective gave a $25,000 grant to Time Out Youth for operating support, and CMCF – the primary grantmaking arm of Foundation For The Carolinas – granted $15,000 to help decrease the dropout rate for LGBTQ students.

“Foundation For The Carolinas allows us to have the resources we need to create content and programming,” Atkinson said. “The Foundation helps take some of the burden of fundraising away from us so we can do the work we know changes and saves lives.”

It is vital work. The 2019 National School Climate Survey revealed that LGBTQ youth face discrimination, harassment, exclusion and physical assault at school twice as often as their non-LGBTQ peers. An LGBTQ young person has a greater chance of dropping out due to excess absenteeism brought on by bullying and victimization. And, more surprising, dropping out may be more appealing than staying in a school system with discriminatory policies.

Time Out Youth’s initiatives to reduce those rates come primarily through engaging with Gay-Straight Alliance groups in middle and high schools and providing training for faculty and staff. Haeley Rimmer, Time Out Youth’s student advocacy coordinator, reached 273 students last year through Gay-Straight Alliance visits, trained more than 500 faculty and staff, and helped two young people receive Time Out Youth’s $5,000 Tonda Taylor Scholarship.

Changing lives

Shakira “Shaq” Clarke, Time Out Youth’s housing specialist, is one of those life changers.

“I experienced homelessness in Toronto, where I was born,” she said. “And then fast forward to when I was a ‘baby queer’ in Charlotte, I experienced homelessness again. I had no identification; getting access to services and resources was hard.”

For the seven-plus years she’s been at Time Out Youth, she’s been making it easy – or easier, anyway – for LGBTQ youth facing a housing crisis.

Autumn Davis – product of the foster care system and divorced single mom – met Clarke in 2019 when she, at just 21 and with two babies, found herself in what she calls “a domestic violence situation” with her live-in girlfriend. Davis moved to a shelter; her kids stayed with their dad during that turbulent time.

She was referred to Clarke, whose department serves 18- to 24-year-olds. If a Time Out Youth client who’s under 18 needs emergency housing, they’re referred to The Relatives.

“Shaq assisted me with getting clothes, finding a place to live, paying the (apartment) deposit,” Davis said. “I know I can call her any time, and she calls me, too. She checks on me every couple of weeks.”

Davis was reluctant at first: “I was embarrassed. Letting someone into your finances and opening up about being homeless and being in an abusive relationship – it was really humbling. I was closed off at first. But Shaq and I have formed a relationship. I can call her if I need to talk about anything.”

Talking it out

Allowing people to speak freely is one of Time Out Youth’s cornerstones.

“For a long time, it was about creating that safe place for someone just to be,” said Atkinson. “Now, we’re helping clients navigate other systems safely – education, mental health, primary health care, employment. The young people we serve need access to vital resources in a way that validates their identity.

“Once people have met that basic threshold of ‘I can be myself,’ they still may experience invalidation or aggression, which can lead to depression.”

Time Out Youth helps with that, too. Danielle Willis is Time Out Youth’s full-time mental health counselor offering services for youth ages 11 to 24. In 2020, she provided 700 free counseling sessions to nearly 60 youth.

“Just as the experience of LGBTQ people has evolved over 30 years, so has our scope,” Atkinson said. “We’re moving from being a social support organization to a social service organization.”

Time Out Youth supports clients in every step of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – from food, water, warmth and rest through achieving one’s full potential. And they make sure that, as their young clients grow into adulthood, they know where to find support.

Time Out Youth subleases space to PFLAG Charlotte and Transcend Charlotte, a nonprofit that advocates for trans adults. Both organizations also have received operating support from The Plus Collective.

“As youth age out of our programs, they know there are other support networks close by,” Atkinson said. “PFLAG is a wonderful resource for parents of LGBTQ youth. Sharing experiences builds a sense of community and removes that feeling of isolation.”

Transcend Charlotte serves members of the trans community 18 and older. “They manage the clothing closet – called ‘the expression space’ – a resource they share with us,” Atkinson said.

When an LGBTQ youth is kicked out of the house, they need more than emergency housing. They need clothing, toiletries, laundry and shower facilities. They’ll find it all at Time Out Youth.

They’ll also find drop-in space, which, Atkinson said, is what brings a lot of youth in the door.

“It’s unstructured space to breathe, be your authentic self, hang out, watch TV, make a friend,” he said. “Drop-in space has always been vital to what we do. It’s a great opportunity for youth to talk to our social work interns, staff or volunteers about what’s going on in their lives.”

But it’s not all unstructured. Time Out Youth offers programming Wednesday through Friday evenings. Wednesday nights are topic-based (coming out, sexual health, finance) discussions.

Thursday nights are identity-based group nights – something clients asked for. Those groups include Tea Time (for trans youth or young people questioning their gender identity) and Melanin and MagiQ (for indigenous youth and youth of color to discuss the intersection of race and gender).

Fridays are just for fun – game night, open mics, movies, creative writing.

Melanin and Magiq group

The Melanin & MagiQ group

“COVID-19 forced us to rethink how we deliver programs,” Atkinson said. “I’m proud to say we never stopped. We served more people in 2020 than we did in 2019. A lot of that was because we adapted all our programs and services to virtual platforms almost immediately.”

‘Change takes a long time’

There’s been progress over these past 30 years. But not enough. “Societal acceptance of LGB youth and adults has increased,” Atkinson said. “Acceptance of the ‘T’ segment has not.”

Atkinson said he wants to get to a world where Time Out Youth is not needed. “But when you’re working with marginalized folks … change takes a long time,” he said. So Time Out Youth will be there for as long as it takes.

When Autumn Davis wound up in another abusive relationship, Clarke was there. “I had to get a restraining order and change the locks on my apartment,” Davis said. “Shaq was there for me again – this time with resources for a lawyer.”

Davis has found a career as a licensed insurance agent. She’s single and isn’t looking for a relationship. She’s focused on healing and “learning to identify the red flags (of an abuser) early.”

Clarke will be there for every step. “I’m not a religious person,” she said. “I’m more spiritual. But God calls me to do this work. I’m on assignment to be a change agent.”

Page Leggett is a nearly lifelong Charlottean whose writing appears regularly in The Charlotte Observer, SouthPark Magazine, Business North Carolina, among other publications.