Organizations finding online success with connecting to P.E.I.'s LGBTQ youth

Some P.E.I. organizations have found turning to online spaces during the global pandemic have allowed them to create more connections with Island LGBTQ youth and allies.

Digital spaces allow more youth from rural areas to connect on P.E.I.

Pride celebrations will be taking place on P.E.I. from July 26 until Aug 2. (John Robertson/CBC)

Madison Power-Lockman recalls hearing now-PEERS Alliance co-worker Rory Starkman give a presentation at their middle school called "Get Real."

"They had these brash pink hats and they were talking about like, gender identity and they were talking about sexuality and I'd never heard anyone talk about it before in that way," Power-Lockman said.

"It really changed my life a whole lot and I definitely don't think I would be as happy as I am now."

Power-Lockman took what they learned from that presentation and attended the PEERS Alliance youth drop-in groups in Charlottetown. They are working with Starkman this summer at PEERS Alliance as community co-ordinator. (Both use they/them pronouns.) 

During COVID-19 restrictions, getting youth together online was an important way to keep connected across the province.

Madison Power-Lockman, community co-ordinator with PEERS Alliance, says it is important for youth to see role models within their own communities. (John Robertson/CBC)

"When COVID hit, I reached out to our youth and I was like, 'What platforms do you use?' and a lot of them were like 'Discord,'" said Starkman, who is the youth services co-ordinator with PEERS Alliance.

Discord is an online group chat program that allows users to meet in online clubhouses, hang out and chat from their own safe space.

Starkman said adapting to the global pandemic this way has allowed them to reach more youth across the province.

Rory Starkman, youth co-ordinator with PEERS Alliance, says the shift to the online platform Discord has been a good way to reach Island youth outside of the Charlottetown area. (John Robertson/CBC)

"If they need each other, they can message each other and different folks are going to be there and they're meeting different queer youth around the Island," Starkman said.

"It's really empowering to see like how many of them thought they were alone before they were on this server."

PEERS Alliance is hosting a Pride Online Scavenger Hunt (POSH) during P.E.I.'s Pride week, between July 26 and Aug. 2. 

Montague outreach goes online

The Pink Elephant Project, formerly known as the Kings Youth Project out of Montague, also adapted during the pandemic restrictions on social gatherings.

The group pivoted from meetings after school to creating a digital safe space on the social media platform Instagram.

"It actually was a really great opportunity to rethink how we can provide more accessible support to the people that we're wishing to connect with," said Mary Clements, an individual and family support worker for the Canadian Mental Health Association based out of Kings County, as well as the Pink Elephant Project lead.

"And so whenever we moved to an online space we certainly noticed a huge uptick in engagement."

A screen grab from the social media platform Discord, which offers users an opportunity to meet up, share and hang out online. (Discord)

Rural youth in the area are able to connect online without having to be physically present, allowing barriers to be broken down, said Starkman and Clements.

"It can be intimidating to walk into a physical space or a room that you might not have been [in] before, especially if you're already feeling vulnerable or belong to a community that might be experiencing oppression or marginalization," Clements said.

The Pink Elephant Project is a partnership with the Kings Youth Wellness Committee and Canadian Mental Health Association on P.E.I., with funding for the initiative from the Canadian Medical Association Foundation.

The Pink Elephant Project moved online to keep connections with Island youth during the pandemic. (PinkElephantProject/Instagram)

Their final push before the funding ends at the end of the month has been to offer a Pride gift pack including stickers and a handwritten note to provide that connection through traditional mail.

"It really has highlighted to me just how wonderful just even one connection is and how valuable that is," Clements said. 

"So yeah, our focus definitely is on trying to create community "

Offering the 'aha' moment

Mary Clements holds up some of the Pink Elephant mail gifts, including colouring pages, stickers and a handwritten note that they are sending out across the Island. (Submitted by Mary Clements)

For staff at PEERS Alliance, that human connection is the vital one.

"Honestly, if I can give one tiny, gangly, caterpillar-eyebrowed 13-year-old, like myself, that 'aha' moment then that's it," Power-Lockman said.

"I've done my job because I have done for other people's lives in terms of self-discovery and inclusion what they have done for me."

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Jane Robertson

Video journalist

Jane Robertson is a multi-platform journalist based out of Charlottetown. She has previously worked out of Edmonton, AB, and Iqaluit, NU, in her award-winning career that has spanned more than a decade with CBC. Twitter @CBCJRobertson Instagram @CBCJaneRobertson