GRAND RAPIDS — The growth of a fund established three years ago by a same-sex couple from Grand Rapids proves there’s interest in addressing issues the LGBT community faces in West Michigan.
That’s according to Carol Sarosik, who along with wife Shelley Padnos founded the Our LGBT Fund through the Grand Rapids Community Foundation with $100,000 in November 2014. The fund has grown since then and is now valued at $520,000.
The couple initially got the idea to create the fund after attending a philanthropy workshop in Chicago focused on LGBT issues.
“There were a lot of programs presented and we came back and said we had to do something because here in West Michigan there was nothing,” Sarosik said. “Shelley and I established a $100,000 match. Within four months, we reached the goal of $100,000 and we got $100,000. I think it initiated a lot of conversations. It was kind of like the elephant in the room.”
The fund provides sponsorship and corporate leadership and goes to create a regional approach to issues the LGBT community faces in Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
“That’s what’s reachable for us right now,” Sarosik said. “We want to see duplication of efforts eliminated and information-sharing magnified and put the money to use in a more synergistic and systematic way.”
During the first two years of its existence, the fund gave out grants totaling $18,000 and $20,000, respectively. This year, it distributed $47,500 in grants among four organizations:
- Arbor Circle-Safe Impact/True Colors Fund — $20,000 to fund an initiative to end teen LGBT homelessness
- Grand Rapids Trans Foundation — $2,500 to provide a college or trade school scholarship for a transgender student
- Out on the Lakeshore — $5,000 to establish a center where LGBT individuals and their support systems can gather in a safe environment for various meetings and events
- Well House — $20,000 to purchase and renovate a house in Grand Rapids for young people who identify as LGBTQ and are facing or experiencing homelessness
After doing some research and listening to other philanthropists, Sarosik said she was staggered to learn that 40 out of every 100 homeless kids identify as LGBT.
“That is like a crazy statistic in terms of over-representation,” she said. “They’ve either been kicked out or felt it was too dangerous to live with their parents. Some in the faith-based community have very strict beliefs and think this is a sin. That’s why we decided to focus on it.”
Part of addressing homelessness includes access to post-secondary education, whether for college or trade school, said Simon Kittok, volunteer executive director and treasurer for Grand Rapids Trans Foundation. The mission of the organization is to provide scholarships that will position LGBT individuals to get good-paying jobs so they can afford homes of their own. The nonprofit was founded on the idea that education can be a pathway to job opportunities, which enables people to afford stable housing and other basic needs.
Kittok, who works for Grand Rapids Community College, said the fund was created to offer more opportunities for transgender individuals to make good lives for themselves.
“I was working at GRCC and found myself with a little money and I wanted to give a small scholarship,” Kittok said. “I really saw it as an opportunity to do something bigger where I could focus on those folks at greatest risk of falling through the cracks and transgender people of color. I rallied a few people and made it a legit 501(c)(3) in December 2015.”
The organization gave one scholarship to a student last summer for $2,500. This year, the group is planning to award a total of $4,500 in scholarships. The grant from Sarosik’s fund will bump that number to $7,000 and provide one more scholarship.
“Even in really, really progressive hubs and cities you see discrimination. I don’t think Grand Rapids is any different,” Kittok said. “We are seeing job and college discrimination. There’s a lot of work to do on this front everywhere. We’re moving in a better direction.”
The Grand Rapids Trans Foundation submitted one of six applications that Our LGBT Fund received.
“We were very, very pleased with the fact that we got six requests for money instead of one because it shows the breadth of the need as well as the different organizations that exist that are trying to improve the lives of LGBT kids, in particular those that are homeless,” Sarosik said.
Officials with Arbor Circle said they will use the grant to provide critical support for the staffing capacity necessary to serve as their community’s liaison to True Colors as it begins a strategic planning effort to improve support and services for LGBT runaways and homeless youths in West Michigan.
The True Colors Fund has been a national leader in providing technical assistance and support to communities across the nation who are working strategically to prevent and end LGBT youth homelessness, said Julie Cnossen, program manager of youth development services for Arbor Circle. By partnering with True Colors, Cnossen said the community gets the benefit of the organization’s technical expertise and its unlimited access to other communities across the nation who are further along in this work. The organization also can tap into assistance with evaluation measures to ensure the work that is occurring is making measurable change within the community.
“From the very beginning, Our LGBT Fund and the Grand Rapids Community Foundation has recognized that improving care for LGBT young people — specifically those experiencing homelessness — would require intentional effort and strategy,” Cnossen said. “With this gift, Arbor Circle is able to lead our community forward in collaboration with our partners to better serve LGBT young people.”
Sarosik and Padnos ultimately would like to see their fund broaden to a more regional approach, but they acknowledge that this will take time.
“When people think of West Michigan, they always think people do things differently,” Sarosik said. “There’s a certain amount of independence and willingness to try things. We are grateful to our donors for recognizing that there is a gap in services for LGBT kids in our communities. I don’t think all LGBT centers can say the same thing.”