Kayla Cocci and Dyamond Gibbs hug before Elijah Neal speaks at the opening of the BIPOC, LGBTQQIA and youth community center in Upper Darby. (KATHLEEN E. CAREY – DAILY TIMES)
The snip of the gold ribbon stretched across the door at 115 Fairfield Ave. on Saturday marked the historic moment of opening Delaware County’s first LGBTQ/BIPOC community center.
“Today is going to make a more resourceful, accessible tomorrow for so many young people, queer people and people of color,” Kayla Cocci, board member of the nonprofit Understanding. Devotion. Take Action. Justice. (U.D.T.J.) and center director of resources and services, said. “As a young, queer person of color myself, I know firsthand how hard it can be to navigate resources that reflect your own personal situation.”
Founded in 2020 after the death of George Floyd, U.D.T.J. has been at the forefront of advocacy in Upper Darby and Delaware County since then. It has also expanded into monthly outreach to the homeless in the 69th Street area and was the founder of the Delco Pride parade and celebrations.
Understanding. Devotion. Take Action. Justice. board member Kyle McIntyre, left, speaks with visitors Saturday at the open house of the community center. (KATHLEEN E. CAREY – DAILY TIMES)
On Saturday, the group opened Delaware County’s first community center designated for the Black, indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC) and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual/aromantic/agender and youth populations.
“This community center is intersectional and open to all people,” U.D.T.J. board member and community center director of operations, Kyle McIntyre, said. “By putting in the time, the effort and the energy to create something that never existed before, we can move the needle forward. That’s what will put our community on an upward trajectory.”
He spoke of what the moment meant to him.
“I grew up not having access to such resources or services and those that existed were not anywhere near where I lived,” McIntyre said. “I honestly never really thought growing up that I would live to see the day that Delco would have a community center such as this for our BIPOC or LGBTQQIA-plus and our youth.”
That changed Saturday as the ribbon was cut and crowds were welcomed into the 1,200-square-foot second-floor center. Lavender pained walls and flags affirming Black Lives Matter and the transgender community line the stair hallway up to the center.
“We’ve been working nonstop since October,” U.D.T.J. board member and center youth empowerment director Dyamond Gibbs said. “We actually ended up getting the space on New Year’s Day.”
Both she and Cocci spoke of how they want the space to provide safety and comfort.
“Since we’re so centralized to the 69th Street terminal, this is the perfect place to be,” Cocci said, adding that the group has been working with Upper Darby High School Gay Straight Alliance students.
U.D.T.J. board members, from left, Kayla Cocci, Dyamond Gibbs, Kyle McIntyre and Elijah Neal cut the ribbon of the BIPOC, LGBTQQIA-plus, youth community center in Upper Darby. (KATHLEEN E. CAREY – DAILY TIMES)
Cocci said one student after getting a peek of the new center said, “They felt just the safety of it. They felt this was where they needed to be.”
She shared her own experience as an example of the impact this can make.
“Growing up, I faced family challenges of homelessness, drug addiction, incarceration, legal battles and crisis intervention encounters,” Cocci said. “On top of my family challenges, I was also growing up queer and Black in a predominantly white neighborhood, in a predominantly white school and going through a gender identity journey.”
After meeting U.D.T.J., she found strength in their support.
“They stood in my corner and helped me find resources, advocated for me in the community,” Cocci said. “I watched them and myself grow as we worked together for the last three years from Pride to monthly outreach to now opening a community center … that is truly why I believe we need a community center — because I know just like they helped me and so many others in our community, we are going to continue to get the work done to help so many others.”
Among the programming that will be provided at the center is a referral network, peer support groups, the Delco Days initiative to connect marginalized populations with organizations, hygiene kits and Narcan and fentanyl test strips.
“We will also be providing chest binders for our LGBTQ community,” Cocci said.
Multiple elected officials attended the event, including Mayor Ed Brown.
A corner office is one of several rooms, including a conference room and lounging space, in the newly opened 1,200-square-feet community center. (KATHLEEN E. CAREY – DAILY TIMES)
“I’m really proud of them and I’m really proud to have an LGBTQ space like this in Upper Darby,” Brown said. “We’re a melting pot. We’re very diverse so this fits right in with our community and this gives people of all walks of life a place to go and this is very welcoming and opening.”
He said plans for a much larger community center in Upper Darby continue.
“This is very nice,” Brown said. “This is a nice start. This gives people a place to go. They made such a great use of the space.”
He also praised U.D.T.J. for the work they are doing in the community.
“I think U.D.T.J. is a growing organization,” Brown noted. “They’re doing positive things and I’m happy that they are reaping some of the benefits from their hard work. I’m really happy to support them and encourage them to keep doing the positive programs that they’re doing.”
Jess Branas, Upper Darby’s first openly gay councilwoman, also talked about the significance of the day.
“I grew up in a time where you could not even say that you were gay,” she said. “I remember being fired from a job before I even came out, it was just assumed. So, to see all the progress like this, in my 47 years, it is amazing.”
The brother-in-law of building owner, Jang Baek, presents the U.D.T.J. organization with a bouquet of flowers before the opening of the community center at 115 Fairfield Ave. in Upper Darby. (KATHLEEN E. CAREY – DAILY TIMES)
Plus she said, it sends a message “to let the younger generation know that now they have adults, not only of LBTQ or BIPOC communities, but they have allies.”
U.D.T.J. board member and volunteer coordinator Elijah Neal encouraged the community to get involved with the center.
“Volunteers are the lifeblood of our organization,” he said, as he welcomed people to bring their ideas and their support to keep the center thriving.
Upper Darby High School junior Courtney Sokalczuk, who was at the center Saturday, said she’d be signing up after seeing the location.
“It’s a safe space for those who really need it and the community really needs that especially right now,” she said. “The youth really needs this.”
“It takes a community to run a community center that’s why we call it a community center,” he said. “And we honestly could not have asked for a better community to work in.”
And as the ribbon parts drifted to the sides of the door, organizers said it was just a start.
“The work and progress has only just begun,” McIntyre said. “Together, we are going to change the lives of so many and make our county a more inclusive and welcoming space.”
This community center on the second floor of 115 Fairfield Ave. in Upper Darby will be open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. U.D.T.J. is working to get a chair lift to make it more accessible. For more details on the center or on programming, visit udtj.org.