Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley Embraces the LGBTQ Community

In the heart of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, just 45 minutes northwest of Charlottesville, something amazing is happening in the town of Staunton. Located between Harrisonburg and Lexington off of Interstate 81, Staunton is not your typical small Virginia town. Through visionary leadership, this welcoming community has become a beacon of inclusivity in the region and a model for other communities across the Commonwealth.

 Chris Wood & Mark Wilkinson

Chris Wood & Mark Wilkinson

Meet Chris Wood

Staunton resident, Chris Wood, believes in leadership that empowers others. His career and work in the community epitomizes that belief. Wood and his partner, Mark Wilkinson, own a home decor and artisan bath store, Redwood & Co., in downtown Staunton. Although Wood is a military brat, Staunton is Wilkinson’s hometown.  The couple moved to Wilkinson’s hometown to care for family, open their store and raise their son.

Entrepreneurial Vision Meets Community Leadership

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Wood incorporates his entrepreneurial background into his work in the nonprofit sector. Recently, he and his friend, Joe Kapp, co-founded and launched LGBT Tech in downtown Staunton. LGBT Tech is a national nonprofit that operates at the intersection of the LGBTQ community and technology with a focus on research, policy and programs. 

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One of those programs is PowerOn, which places much needed technology in the hands of homeless and at-risk members of the LGBTQ community. This technology helps people in need connect with other members of the LGBTQ community, assists with educational efforts and even provides a measure of safety by making mobile phones available to those who would otherwise be without. 

As soon as LGBT Tech affixed their letters to the front door of their office on Augusta Street, the phone started ringing with people asking for resources within the LGBTQ community. Wood quickly realized that members of the LGBTQ community in his hometown and, indeed, throughout the entire Shenandoah and Appalachian region, needed support systems and resources.

The Shenandoah LGBTQ Center

On July 13th, Wood learned of a young man who intended to take his own life because of the isolation he experienced after coming out. Fortunately, first responders were able to get that young man the help he needed. Stories like these are becoming all too common across America. Sadly, a lack of acceptance and limited resources for people who come out can cause members of the LGBTQ community to develop suicidal thoughts and, sometimes, act upon them.

To stem this devastating tide and prevent future tragedies, Wood decided to create a LGBTQ community center for the Shenandoah Valley and Appalachia region. Rather than contacting media outlets or sending out a press release, Wood turned to Facebook and did an emotional live video that called on the community to rally together behind him in establishing the Shenandoah LGBTQ Center in Staunton.

 Chris Wood

Chris Wood

Wood asked his board at LGBT Tech to act as the fiscal sponsor for the new center and, after receiving approval, announced the first of a series of listening sessions to make sure the community was heard. Wood and the LGBT Tech team are currently in the process of synthesizing input from community members from across the region and will begin providing services later this year.

Wood’s vision and rallying call sparked others in the community to step forward with innovative ways to serve LGBTQ youth, adults and seniors in our region. Simply put, Wood started a movement.

Staunton Pride

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The community’s support for both LGBT Tech and the Shenandoah LGBTQ Center caught the attention of the Staunton Augusta Waynesboro Citizen Action Network (SAW-CAN), a local nonprofit organization. SAW-CAN reached out to Wood asking how they could help his team create the first Pride celebration in Staunton’s history. Thanks to Wood’s entrepreneurial leadership style and ability to empower others, an exciting new community-based collaborative project was born.

After much work, Staunton is set to have its first Pride Weekend from October 5-7, 2018. Current plans for Staunton Pride include spaces for 50 vendors, a beer garden, food trucks, live entertainment and kids play area. On Saturday the 6th, Indie-Pop sensation and LGBTQ rights supporter, Catey Shaw, will take to the stage as the event’s headliner. The Clocktower Restaurant & Bar, as well as its Downtown 27 nightclub (located at 27 Beverley Street) will host a Staunton Pride Drag Show on Saturday night.

The goal of Staunton Pride is to celebrate and support all members of our community in order to increase acceptance and inclusivity in the Shenandoah Valley. All proceeds from the event will benefit the Shenandoah LGBTQ Center.

 

Staunton-based designer, Marc Borzelleca, has provided the branding for Staunton Pride. Presale of Staunton Pride merchandise is now available online: stauntonpride.org/pride-store. For more information about Staunton’s inaugural Pride celebration, look up @stauntonpride on social media and visit Staunton Pride’s website, stauntonpride.org.