The Chippewa Valley LGBTQ Community Center provides community support

The center offers many services including social and support groups, resources and leading events

Sam Janssen (He/Him)

More stories from Sam Janssen (He/Him)

Dan Bennett-Hardy, the secretary and office manager for the Chippewa Valley LGBTQ Community Center, said he was at a conference speaking about health care for the LGTBQ community and experienced a first-hand example of how important their work is.

Bennett-Hardy said he talked in his speech about the importance of telling family you love them regardless of how they identify.

A mother approached him afterward and told him she called her son and gave him this message. He later learned the woman’s son is gay and he had helped her reconnect with her child.

“If I can change one person’s life for the better, I’ve done my job,” Bennett-Hardy said.

The Chippewa Valley LGTBQ Community Center, located in downtown Eau Claire at 505 S. Dewey St., provides the local LGTBQ community with social opportunities, support groups, interest groups and resources along with working in the community to advocate for tolerance and equity “in all aspects of public and private life,” according to Bennett-Hardy and the nonprofit’s website.

According to Bennett-Hardy, the current support groups include transgender, trans parents and a youth group. Current social clubs include a gaming guild and a reading club.

Their office also contains a lending library full of books that can be checked out, mostly by queer authors, Bennett-Hardy said. The books can be rented out in the office or over mail.

He said one of the most important aspects of their work is supporting queer youth because they have the same kinds of issues that any teenager is already going through, but “compounded by them being queer.”

He said it is important for them to have a place to feel accepted and connect with other youths with similar life experiences, as well as talk about anything and be free from judgment.

Jason Bennett, the current treasurer and former president of the center from 2013-2019, said the center has grown substantially in the past decade since he first became involved, when they were holding meetings above a garage. 

Bennett stepped down from the president position in 2019 to “let young voices take over.”

He said the highlight of the past decade of work for him has been seeing the annual Chippewa Valley Pride event –– which takes place the second Saturday of June in Phoenix Park –– grow substantially from not being well known in the community to now being right in the middle of Eau Claire where “you can’t miss it.”

Bennett said attendance grew substantially last year after being canceled due to COVID-19 in 2020. Attendance grew last year from an estimated 350-500 people in 2019 to 1000-1500 in 2021.

The annual Pride celebration features vendor booths, food trucks and a drag show, along with other activities going on all around the space, which is being expanded upon this year according to Bennett.

He said they are hosting a new element this year, Pride panels, in the weeks leading up to Pride, where they have organized groups to talk about different topics related to the LGBTQ community.

Another key event the center helps organize every year is Queer Prom, which took place last Saturday and was open to all high schoolers in the surrounding area, Bennett said.

Kayla Johnson began her involvement with the center as a guest at a few virtual events in 2020. Then she heard about the project director position, which she accepted to get involved and “help them in a meaningful way.”

She said when she first started attending virtual meetings, the environment was welcoming right away and it felt like a discussion among friends.

As she has continued working with the center as project manager, she said it has been rewarding to connect with members of the LGBTQ community who are glad to have that support in the community.

“I think anyone who isn’t sure if they are ready to get in touch with us, I hope they just take that leap and get in touch and stop by,” Johnson said.

She said the center allows the community to celebrate who they are and “be themselves in a vibrant way.”

Bennett said the overall mission of the center is to advance the LGBTQ community, connect them with services that already exist and try to fill the gaps in resources when people from the community present needs.

“We can help them be the change they want to see in the community,” Bennett said. “We can’t do it alone and we know they can’t do it alone, but as a team we can do a lot.”

Bennett said community members can support the center by donating through their website or sending a check to their office, along with volunteering to help run Pride, working in the office so it can be open to the public and volunteering to run groups.

Janssen can be reached at [email protected]