by Evilu Pridgeon, President of The Dallas Way
I started my teaching career with DISD in a new middle school with an open classroom concept during the first year of desegregation and busing. Nolan Estes was the superintendent at the time and was considered to be very progressive and innovative.
I remember the day very clearly, however – it was on the front page of the Dallas Morning News – that Nolan Estes was quoted as saying that any teachers who were found to be homosexuals would be immediately fired. Within 24-48 hours another article stated that he rescinded that statement when it was pointed out to him that somewhere between 20-40% of DISD teachers were gay, and that it might cause a problem if he were to fire us all.
Nevertheless, no one talked about these statements and NO ONE identified to anyone else that she/he was gay, even if that other person was considered to be safe and may have been gay themselves. Growing up in Austin, the liberal bubble of the state, I experienced culture shock –not that it was okay to be gay there either – but at least no one was publicly trying to take your job away from you. People ask me all the time why I moved from Austin to Dallas, and sometimes I wonder that too.
I spent 14 years working for DISD, seven in the classroom and the other seven in faculty development, establishing an alternative program for students who were about to be terminated from their schools. I came out to some very close friends – we were in a support group together and all worked for DISD – a year before I left, even though I had been “out” for years and everyone knew it, but still, no one talked about it. This was 1985.
I was recruited to work for an inpatient treatment facility because of the work I had done within the school district in training and helping schools set up Student Assistance Programs. The facility wanted me to do the same thing with area school districts as a community representative. The environment was much more open here and I had lots of freedom and success. And, it eventually led me to work in the gay community. It just took me awhile to find the path.
Just like I can remember where I was when Kennedy was assassinated, I can clearly remember reading the DMN article in 1981, on the front page of the Metro section, about a disease/syndrome, known then as GRIDS – Gay-related Immune Deficiency Syndrome – named because it seemed to be affecting only gay men. I remember thinking at that time that this was going to change the path of my journey. I didn’t know why or how, but in one of those rare moments of clarity and intuition, I just knew. And it did, although it took a few more years to manifest how.
About the same time I left DISD, I met a truly amazing woman who dragged me into the world of voluntarism, and her first act was to create one of the first Supper Clubs for AIDS Services Dallas. A bunch of us cooked dinner once a month and took it to the “AIDS House” as we called it. The purpose was to provide a home-cooked meal for those who could not afford it, and to socialize with the residents, because many never received visitors. Families had disowned them, friends didn’t understand the disease and were afraid of contact. It was horrible.
Some of the men were very friendly and craved the company and attention while others took their food and went back to their rooms. They were resentful that they were accepting charity as they saw it.
I made a lot of friends – most gone now – and I don’t remember all their names, but I do remember their faces and their personalities. I also remember holding their hands as they died. It was a humbling experience to be there with them – they let me into their lives and I will always treasure that. Larry, David and Harold – very special men who loved unconditionally and lived and died with dignity, despite this horrible disease.
I don’t remember how I initially got involved with OLCS (Oak Lawn Community Services). I remember being taken, probably by the same woman mentioned earlier, to a reception of sorts for OLCC (Oak Lawn Community Center). It was either an open house or an anniversary celebration. Other than that, I don’t remember how I started volunteering there. I know that the Executive Director of the inpatient facility gave me permission to start volunteering there as part of a community service effort – the end being that clients at OLCS might be referred to our facility. I tell her that most of the clients were uninsured, poor, and mostly HIV+.
I started out conducting chemical dependency assessment interviews (not peeing in a cup or drawing blood) and making recommendations based on those assessments. A board member of OLCS was adamant about the need for a treatment program for gays and lesbians and offered to donate to start it. So, that’s the genesis of the OASIS program.
We started out with volunteers and we ran a few groups a week. These were more support groups than anything else, but a plan began forming to offer real programming.
In August 1988, I was able to hire a Licensed Professional Counselor with experience in this area, and an administrative assistant to keep us all organized. I was still volunteering. But we put the program together and I talked myself into a job in 1989, and the rest is history. We received our license from the state, and wrote for grants and maintained the program for many years. I think we helped a lot of people and I still see and keep in touch with former clients who are still clean and sober – but mostly they are happy they had a place to go where there was no judgment.
I saw a client recently who said that when people ask her about how she got sober, she tells them that she came to me to work on her relationship, but I kept asking about her alcohol and other drug use! She joined the program and has been sober for 24 years. I don’t take credit for that, or for anyone being sober today. It’s just that the Oasis program was created at the right time and in the right place for many people. I’m very grateful I could be present to watch so many find such peace and acceptance.
In 1994 it was time for me to leave. I was still a part of Razzle Dazzle Dallas and served as the president for a couple of years. We brought the party back to the street and raised some much needed funds while also having fun.
And the rest, as they say, is history.