30 Years Of OYM: Program Evolution
When Odyssey first opened its doors on a hot July afternoon in 1992, the initial concept was a small but mighty HIV/AIDS outreach and prevention group, a project of the Spokane Regional Health District. Soon enough, word spread about a new safe and sober space for queer youth to hang out, and by October, the Odyssey Youth Group was being advertised in Stonewall News, a local LGBTQ+ newspaper that began printing the same year Odyssey was founded. Less than a month later, Odyssey found its first consistent meeting space; a free room at the YWCA.
But, over those first ten years of programs, as participation doubled and tripled and the first permanent drop-in location opened, a question hung in the balance; as the world entered the twenty-first century and the LGBTQ+ youth population evolved, how would Odyssey's programming evolve alongside them?
Odyssey's Vision & Programs chart, a wheel separated into six categories; safer sex & healthy relationships, LGBTQ+ culture & history, community building, leadership, advocacy, and life skills. Created in Fall 2021 by the Program Excellence Committee, the Programs Manager, and the Communications Coordinator.
Over the last thirty years, Odyssey's mission of promoting equity for LGBTQ+ youth and young adults in the Inland Northwest has taken many forms. A cornerstone of Odyssey's programs for many years to come would be the six categories adopted in the above Vision & Programs wheel (created in 2021 by Odyssey's Program Excellence Committee). In one way or another, most Odyssey programs related back to one or more of these six themes, all focusing on promoting equity for local LGBTQ+ youth and young adults.
Odyssey's earliest focus, as an HIV/AIDS education and outreach group, was on safer sex & healthy relationships, something that many LGBTQ+ youth were not getting in local schools. As Odyssey transitioned from an outreach group to a drop-in center, the focus on youth autonomy and sex education remained a central element of weekly programming. From monthly sex ed programs with Planned Parenthood to protesting at abstinence rallies, youth learned how to advocate for themselves, their peers, and their right to education on their bodies and identities.
The mid-to-late 2000s saw an increased focus on youth advocacy, leadership, and community building. Youth had regular lobby days during which they would travel to Olympia and meet with state legislators. 2003 saw the creation of a Youth Speakers Bureau that gave local LGBTQ+ youth the chance to share their views about issues facing queer youth with various groups and organizations around Spokane.
The focus on youth advocacy included the creation of an Odyssey needs list as early as 2004; youth were asked to name items that would help them survive and thrive, such as hygiene supplies or gender affirming clothing, and needs lists were sent out in Odyssey newsletters to provide community members with an avenue to support local LGBTQ+ youth. Youth and young adult focused needs lists would continue to be a staple of Odyssey programs and community outreach for years to come.
After moving to the South Perry location in 2006 (Odyssey's current drop-in center), Odyssey's programs maintained focuses on advocacy and sex education while also starting to provide programming centered around life skills and LGBTQ+ history & culture. Cooking became a staple of Odyssey life, with youth, mentors, and staff creating and eating a hot meal together at every drop-in evening. Programs on everything from taxes to mending to first aid were common in the 2010s, culminating in a program entitled "Queer Scouts" which focused on general skill building activities. At the same time, programs teaching LGBTQ+ history happened frequently, introducing youth and young adults to queer heroes that they may not have learned about in schools.
Today's Odyssey looks very different than it did during the days of meeting in an empty YWCA conference room. Technology and the internet have advanced; Odyssey's center in South Perry now features computers for youth use, as well as modern gaming systems to play on with friends during drop-in. Some life skills that were taught in the past are no longer needed; some are needed now more than ever. And, as the LGBTQ+ rights movement progresses, more LGBTQ+ history is added to the figurative books every day. Over the last thirty years, Odyssey has both changed and expanded many of its offered programs and resources to fit this ever-changing world; and, over the next thirty years, the same will likely happen again. One thing that won't change is Odyssey's commitment to promoting equity for LGBTQ+ youth and young adults in Eastern Washington.
Interested in Odyssey's programs and resources? Visit our programs page at odysseyyouth.org/programs for more information. Or, come by drop-in sometime! We're open Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 3-8PM for LGBTQ+ youth ages 13-18 and on Thursdays from 5-9PM for LGBTQ+ young adults ages 18-24.
Feeling inspired? We're always looking for topics for upcoming posts! Contact our Communications Coordinator, Chandler, at firstname.lastname@example.org with pitches for future Odyssey blog posts.