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Title:A room of their own: Uptown and downtown, Green Chimneys is an alternative to foster homes

Author:Winnie McCroy

Publication:NY Blade

Original Language:English

Translator:

Section:news

Blurb:For gay and transgendered teens, Unger House and its parent organization, Green Chimneys, has given them a second chance at life. Many of the kids here have a triple-whammy, said Randi Anderson, a director with Green Chimneys. They are gay or transgender, Hispanic, Latino or Caribbean, or learning disabled.

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Body:On a Friday afternoon, 10 gay and transgendered teens laugh and talk on the steps of a well-kept Gramercy Park apartment building. A pretty transgendered girl sweeps her carefully coiffed hair from her face as she flirts and poses. Nearby, two boys with coffee-colored skin watch her and smile. It is lunch hour at Unger House, and soon two dozen kids will attend their house meeting and receive their allowances.

For these kids, Unger House and its parent organization, Green Chimneys, has given them a second chance at life. It doesnt take an advocate like Rosie ODonnell for most of us to realize that growing up in the foster care system provides a less-than-perfect childhood. To the very real problems of being shuttled between transient housing every year, poverty and a broken home, now add an adolescents growing realization that he is gay, and the situation becomes that much worse. But the gay foster kids enrolled in Green Chimneys can find the education, compassion and understanding they need to become strong, healthy adults.

The New York City Administration of Childrens Services [ACS] didnt want to acknowledge that gay kids werent getting everything they needed in the foster care system, but Gary [Mallon, the founder] stood in the face of homophobia and transphobia, recalled Randi Anderson, the director of Green Chimneys Life Skills Program, from her cozy office in Unger House. He wanted kids to be safe in a group home rather than out in the streets.

A combination of both Cagney and Lacey, Anderson exudes the perfect combination of warmth and a no-nonsense attitude needed for this job. We fought tooth and nail to make this program for the GLBTQ (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, queer) kids, she said. Word got out that the school was a place where it would be safe to be gay.

The original Green Chimneys was a 75-acre dairy farm upstate, in Putnam County. Beginning in 1947, Mallon used the farm to teach troubled kids how to be in harmony with animals and thereby learn more about themselves. Named for the green paint used on the cupolas and chimneys, the program grew through the years to include a pre-school and day camp, and later, group homes in Westchester County and in Danbury, Conn.

In the 80s, Green Chimneys began operating the Gramercy Life Skills Program, a 25-bed facility for young men in Manhattan. The program now includes a Supervised Independent Living Program (SILP) in Harlem for gay and lesbian young people who range from 18 to 21-years-old. Today, Unger House stands as the only agency-sponsored program of its kind on the East Coast.

Many of the kids here have a triple-whammy, said Anderson, who has worked with the program since 1993. They are gay or transgender, Hispanic, Latino or Caribbean, or learning disabled. Unger House provides a structured existence where, Anderson said, kids are rewarded with visitors and phone privileges. You get to higher levels if you keep up your schoolwork, hygiene, room care, curfew and attend meetings. They have to participate in the meetings. If you dont learn the lesson the meeting is teaching, at least you learn to socialize. If someone is grandstanding or monopolizing time, others will speak up.

The facilities at Unger House resemble a community center more than a state-run institution. Teens sit and talk on couches in an airy, open front room, while sun from a skylight streams in over a stone-lined indoor lily pond. A large tabby cat investigates a cage of songbirds. Kids have visiting hours, a curfew, and planned activities. As befitting gay and lesbian young people, the free time went way beyond team sports and card games. Anderson compared the goings-on, which include a dance and Bitchy Bingo, to the film Paris Is Burning.

Enrollees can attend the Audre Lorde School, a city-sponsored program by the city to get a high-school diploma. The Audre Lorde program helps gay and lesbian students who are harassed at mainstream schools. We have two Board of Education teachers, and a captive audience, so to speak, because a lot of the kids who live here are in the school, Anderson said. There are also kids who dont live here who come to the school, and we even take kids who are too old for high school or are undocumented.

For Anthony Harper, a 19-year-old known to his friends as Junior, Unger House has provided a place where he doesnt have to hide his identity. We can just be gay instead of going out and being gay and coming back and acting straight, he said. Harper, who is now enrolled in college, said he would rather be at Unger House than any other group home. We take a lot of the bonuses for granted, but they give us a lot, he said. Where else can we get $45 a week for an allowance?

The staff is realistic about the temptations these kids will find on the mean streets of New York City. We cant just be like Nancy Reagan and say Just say no, Anderson said. Kids will get high, will want to do things that they shouldnt, and will be learning about their bodies. We want them to be able to come to us and say, I took drugs, and I feel bad, for the transgender kids to come to us and say, I got an implant, and something feels wrong. They may face penalties, and get dropped a level if they do drugs or stay out all night, but at least they can get the help they might need.

Kids need to discover that school can be a safe environment for learning, regardless of the lesson, Anderson said. This month, she plans to discuss the problem of homophobia in schools at a meeting with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. School is not just about class work, its about socialization skills, she noted.

Although ACS has been more responsive this year to the program at Unger House, the agency still presses her to find jobs for the kids. Their parents throw these kids out, and say Dont come home until youre a man, she said. They are ignorant, and some of them are very religious. So when ACS says, Go get a job, if the name on your birth certificate is Charlie, but you go by Destiny and have breasts and wear a dress, how are you going to get a job? I cant even get some of them in patient substance abuse programs!

Although Anderson applauds the addition of transgender protection to the citys human rights legislation, she doesnt expect transphobia to disappear overnight. She tries to get part-time jobs and internships to build experience and pride. Anderson has found some success working with Friends Indeed and a restaurant chef who gives the residents cooking classes; recently, he hired four of them to work in his restaurant.

For kids who prove to be more self-sufficient, Green Chimneys offers the Supervised Independent Living Program apartments in Harlem; seven apartments for 18 gay youth to ease the transition from foster care to independent living. The program offers a 15-unit course, based on Green Chimneys own curriculum, Life Skills for Living in the Real World. Residents then implement this course living in a furnished apartment with another resident.

In the uptown facility, there is a different criterion, Anderson explained. They want you to have your high school diploma, be working or in college, and at a high level of functioning. If they show they are capable of cooking, cleaning and working, they are given money, and have to buy their own food. It is not 24-hour supervision, but it is still supervised. They have to go to monthly meetings, but it is the least level of restrictive care.

Triangle Tribe Apartments is a new program from Green Chimneys that holds meetings open to any child in foster care who needs a safe space. Once a week, young people can get together in a place where they can find other people like themselves a welcome respite from the stress of their everyday lives.

Anderson looks at her work like a group mom. Garys focus is safety and teaching life skills. Im a loving person, and he showed me a place where I can be a mother, said Anderson. On the other hand, when you go into social work, you learn about transference, and sometimes kids who have issues with their mothers transfer it to me. I become subject to their rage. But if youre good, you can grab that moment and begin the healing. If you cant teach them to fill that hole, what can you do? You cant fill it for them.

For more info contact: Randi Anderson at Green Chimneys 212-677-7288, ext. 208 www.greenchimneys.org

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Publication:2002-10-03

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Section:112


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