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Steinway St. center reaches out to gays

By Alex Davidson

Marisa Ragonese, 26, program director for the Queens Rainbow Community Center, which moved from Corona to its new location at 30-74 Steinway St., said the improved center will offer, among other things, a drop-in center for young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered adults, writing classes, a book club and eventually day care classes for children of gay parents.

“It would be a shame for the most diverse place in the world not to have a diverse, vibrant community center for queer people,” Ragonese said. “We really wanted to be able to bring together all communities in one space, not just for separate programming but to pair youth and seniors in everything from drawing classes to big brother, big sister.”

Ragonese, along with Kennesha Trueblood, the center's youth services coordinator, and Rick Mueller, the treasurer at the Astoria center, are the trio responsible for planning future events. Together, they said during an interview last week, their goal is to reach out to borough youth and become a place where people of any age can stop by, chat with friends and, most importantly, feel welcome and comfortable.

“I just like the idea of having a community center in Queens for everyone but specifically for the kids,” Mueller said. “They (the youth) spend a few hours here and they're themselves.”

The new center officially opened Feb. 1, but Ragonese said she hopes to have a full month of programming ready for March. The facility is located on the second floor and has a separate room that will be a youth drop-in center, another side section that will become a library and several other large spaces that could serve as space for meetings or other group events.

The Queens Rainbow Community Center is financially supported by the Queens Lesbian and Gay Pride Committee, which helped operate the original Corona community center, said Mueller, who is a member of the committee's board of directors. But the desire for a larger, private and more accessible space led Mueller and others two years ago to begin a search for a new home.

“This location is really diverse and in the center of so many things,” Ragonese said.

Before the move, the Queens Rainbow Community Center had been sharing space with the Jackson Heights Community Development Project. Since its relocation, however, Ragonese said the center has filed to become a recognized nonprofit group.

A major focus for the new center will be not to replicate services that are already available to the general public, Ragonese said. She said instead she hopes to foster partnerships with organizations like AIDS Center Queens County and other service-providers to establish a permanent base of essential resources for youth and adults.

Initially the center will rely on its core group of volunteers and paid staff to tell the community what is offered at the site. Trueblood said she and Ragonese will regularly inform about 300 existing members who have signed up for the center's e-mail list to make them aware of activities at the Queens Rainbow Community Center.

“Word of mouth is really what's important,” Trueblood said.

Some of the other happenings on tap for the center include regular movie nights, an all-inclusive church, game nights and a full-service library to house the group's collection of thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered books, Ragonese said.

Ragonese said she would eventually like to see the center evolve into an activist headquarters for gay youth in Queens. She said once the preliminary logistics are worked out and the center is fully up and running, she plans on seeking grant money to develop training classes for youth on topics such as homophobia, sexually transmitted diseases, and HIV/AIDS transmission and prevention.

Ragonese, a Queens native, was previously the youth services coordinator for the Queens Rainbow Community Center in Corona. She said she brings a unique experience to the job because she was born in the borough and best understands the challengers Queens youth experience growing up in a mostly suburban part of New York City.

The center will also take an unconventional approach to educate people about and treat those with HIV and AIDS, Ragonese said. She said the Queens Rainbow Community Center will have HIV spirituality groups that will incorporate alternative methods to deal with the treating of and symptoms caused by the virus.

Classes will be led by a man who is HIV-positive and has previously taught classes for the Queens Rainbow Community Center, the program director said.

In the meantime, those involved with the center are still involved in getting the facility up and running. This includes unpacking dozens of boxes, organizing phone lines, hanging up posters and doing some old-fashioned cleaning. Ragonese said she and others are planning to have a volunteer orientation Feb. 29 for those interested in helping out at the center as well as a grand opening party, tentatively planned for March 5, to highlight some of the programming for local residents.

Ragonese said she eventually wants to have enough resources and money to establish consistent programming every day and every night for those interested in coming to the center.

“We are really hoping that this space, in all its glory, is going to allow us to service Queens' diverse lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered communities, in both race and class,” Ragonese said. “We are looking to make sure to bring together all LGBT people.”

For those interested in contacting the Queens Rainbow Community Center or getting more involved in its activities, please contact them via phone at (718) 204-5955 or through e-mail at queensrcc@aol.com.

Reach reporter Alex Davidson by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

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