By Brian Goins
Pam Sheffer spent 23 years in corporate health insurance sales before she took a leap into the unfamiliar non-profit arena.
“It was a really lucrative career,” she said. “But as I got to that 40-something (age) window of time, I started to realize, ‘You know I’m going to be working for at least another 25 years. Is this really what I want to be doing with the rest of my professional life?’”
She started to examine her life and her passions, and realized she wanted to work to make a positive impact on people’s lives.
“I knew that what I was doing was not what I wanted to be. It was something that I was doing, but it was not who I wanted to be.”
After some soul searching, she sat down with family and friends, and asked them to tell her when the last time they saw joy in her life. Her mom gave her a simple answer: She really liked to color — anything artistic.
She talked with old co-workers and asked the same question, and got a unanimous answer.
“It was training, and educating, and leading,” she said. “Those were things where they saw me shine in those respects. So that was helpful.”
She identified three points of passion: Addressing suicide in LGBT+ youth, addressing the plight of homelessness for youth and addressing the access of healthcare for everybody, regardless of ability to pay.
Those three primary focuses were what drove her to start interviewing non-profit organizations that did that kind of work. She knew Hal Cato, who was the president and CEO of Oasis Center at the time, through her work on the board of advisors at Community Foundation. She approached him and expressed an interest in what Oasis Center had to offer.
“I tell people I basically stalked him,” she laughed, “which I think is pretty accurate. He was gracious enough to give me an opportunity to come in and talk with him.”
“I told him that I wanted to start an LGBT+ program at Oasis Center to specifically focus on the needs of these young people.”
But in order for anything to happen, she’d need funding — and she would need to include youth as a part of the process. Then, she said, Cato negotiated the “best deal ever” for her.
“I could work for free, and figure it out,” she said. “So that’s what I did.”
Through her prior preparations, she had arranged it so that her bills were paid and she could take the time she needed to come up with a plan to meet her vision.
“I worked 40 hours a week for a year for free to figure out what (the program) was going to look like,” she said.
“I did a lot of focus groups with LGBT+ young people, with LGBT+ young adults; I did one-on-one interviews with them. I held summits — anything to bring their voices to the table.”
She began her work in June of 2010, and they launched Just Us at Oasis Center in July 2011. It took a lot of hard work, determination and a sharp learning curve. Oasis Center staff were supportive of the work she was doing and kept encouraging her.
“They knew I had the passion, the brain power, and the will power … it was just a matter of moving forward one step at a time,” she said.
Just Us is completely driven by the youth. The Tuesday drop-in session averages about 32 students per session and they have five adult volunteers, along with Page Regan, the program coordinator. The staff and volunteers are well-trained to address any needs the youth may have.
“I think some people think that this LGBT+ group is sort of like the cast for ‘Glee,’” she said. “It’s the farthest from the truth. We have young people coming from 15 different counties and 30 different high schools. Most of our young people are coming from outside Davidson County.”
She said the kids are diverse in background and need a space to be themselves and find support.
“When they’re coming to us, they’re coming because they have no other connections where they are,” she said. “These are kids who are not connected really to a significant social circle.”
It’s taken a few years for the program to grow, but she said that they reach the youth that they need to through the internet, social media and referrals. They average two to three new young people every week, so there are always new kids coming in who may be terrified.
“They want to be there,” she said, “but they may not know what to expect.”
She said about 85 percent of the young people they serve identify as gender nonconforming, gender fluid or non-binary. It’s important, she said, to have staff who emulate who they serve, so that there’s a cultural connection.
“We have a lot of gender diversity within our ranks,” she said. “About 50 percent of the staff are trans-identified individuals, which I love.”
Parents, she said, also have been supportive of the program and of the youth who attend, and about 50 percent of them have done family counseling.
“We try to always incorporate the families, because we know that the young people need to leave here and go to a safe and supporting space,” she said.
“We do have some parents who are resistant, but they know their child is very fragile and is struggling, and they’re socially isolated. So they’re willing to let them come.”
It’s a safe and affirming space for the youth to have real, face-to-face connections with others who they identify with beyond social media.
“(Social media) is why they struggle so much with making social connections,” she said. “They have been making friends virtually, and that’s so different. We push them on group sharing and one-on-one conversations.”
Just Us has been a labor of love for Sheffer and her staff, but now she is doing work behind the scenes to ensure that programs like this just simply don’t need to exist.
She’s working with various organizations, such as Tennessee Department of Education, the Juvenile Justice System and the child welfare system to try and create open and affirming levels of care within those systems. She’s working for a micro statewide accreditation for school counselors to be open and affirming.
“I’m hoping that if we can get at least one open and affirming counselor in every single school in the state of Tennessee — just one — then the climate in the schools will change for every young person exponentially,” she said.
And, she hopes for a future where youth don’t have to seek safe spaces like Just Us.
“I tell my staff all the time that we are working so hard,” she said, “so that we can basically close this shop down.”
ABOUT JUST US
Just Us is a group of programs at Oasis Center dedicated to helping lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth to achieve their full potential. Specifically, Just Us provides LGBT high school students a liberating space where they can be authentic and celebrate the fluidity of identity. For more information, visit justusoasis.org.
BECOME A SUSTAINING DONOR
The best way to help Just Us and other programs at Oasis Center is to become a sustaining donor. Visit oasiscenter.org/donate.