Not everyone feels comfortable or safe being their authentic selves at home, at work, or in other social settings. Blue Water Allies
aims to create that safe haven of support for the LGBTQIA+ community since the nonprofit was created in April 2023.
Amanda Hurtubise, President of the Blue Water Allies, says the organization came out of a confluence of several entities within the community such as the Community Foundation of St. Clair County
, McLaren Port Huron Foundation
, and St. Clair County Community Mental Health
Vice President of the Community Foundation, Jackie Hanton, says in early 2022 the Community Foundation created an LGBTQ+ listening circle of community members who could share their journey’s needs and experiences. From those listening circle sessions, the group formed their own Blue Water Allies 501c3.
“An incredible group of individuals came around the table with us to share about their lived experiences, opportunities, and needs as LGBTQIA+ people,” Hanton says. “After several gatherings, it became clear that there was support, positive momentum, and gaps in what resources were available locally.”
Community members gather at the Blue Water Ally Center in downtown Port Huron.
Earlier, funds were raised through the McLaren Port Huron Foundation to start the Ally Project which was used to champion and improve LGBTQIA+ healthcare through McLaren Port Huron
, however, there was a greater need in the community. In 2021, the Community Foundation’s annual community-wide giving event gave a significant boost to the group’s efforts.
“In those 24 hours, we raised $34,000,” Hurtubise says. “That was mostly small-dollar donations, and that really showed us that the community really wanted and needed and supported LGBTQIA+ services.”
During the event, the new Ally Project Fund
was also announced, building upon the McLaren Port Huron Foundation’s Ally Project.
“A core group from the listening circle helped to expand the focus of the Ally Project Fund which is now at the Community Foundation to support LBTQIA+ healthcare, mental healthcare, as well as programs, projects, and services for these community members,” Hanton says.
Blue Water Ally Center is located at 1519 Military St. in Port Huron, Michigan.Hale Walker
, former Chair of the Community Foundation Board, says the first major grant from the fund supported the opening of the Blue Water Ally Center located in downtown Port Huron at 1519 Military St.
“The Center provides an affirming environment for educational programming, support groups, resources for physical and mental healthcare, social, and artistic opportunities,” Walker says.
Previously home to Thumb Coast Kitchens and Atrium Café & Ice Cream Parlour, Blue Water Allies opened the Center in June 2023. Today, it serves as a welcoming community space with meeting spaces and social areas with couches, plants, and artwork. An outdoor space features Michigan-native plants, rain barrels, and a pavilion.
“We’re excited to welcome the Blue Water Ally Center to our community,” says Deb Johnson, CEO of SCCCMH. “By providing a safe and inclusive space for individuals to connect, share experiences, and access vital resources, we know this will continue to build and foster a community that celebrates diversity and embraces the unique identities of all of its residents.”
Through the Ally Center, the community can gather and support one another across the entire Blue Water region.
“We do that by providing an affirming environment, a safe environment where we offer educational programming, support groups, resources for physical and mental healthcare, and also social and artistic opportunities,” Hurtubise says.
She says there was nothing like their unique, welcoming space in the downtown Port Huron area or surrounding communities.
“The closest LGBTQIA+ community center is 55 miles away in Ferndale,” she says. “There are only four such community centers in the entire state of Michigan, so the need is very great. That’s what led us to do this, to provide a safe space because we know that is the foundation for everything else that we do.”
The nonprofit focuses on a few areas: physical and mental healthcare resources, emotional and social support groups. They partner with local health departments, offering vaccines, HIV and rapid STD testing for anyone, ‘ask the doctor’ series, menopause support groups, and more. As for social support groups, they host a weekly transgender support group and a teen LGBTQIA+ group in partnership with SCCCMH. They also offer substance abuse recovery groups and narcotics anonymous groups.
“Mental health concerns are more common among individuals identifying as LGBTQIA+,” says Kathleen Gallagher, Program Director at SCCCMH. “While identifying as LGBTQIA+ doesn’t cause these concerns, we see discrimination, social isolation, rejection, and more at the root of these issues. The Ally Center marks a significant milestone in our community by providing a sanctuary where individuals can freely express themselves without fear of judgment or prejudice.”
A wide range of programs and activities are available at the Blue Water Ally Center.
Creating that safe space can change the lives of those who walk through Blue Water Ally Center’s doors.
“Statistically, we know that when LGBTQIA+ individuals – whether that’s young people, middle life, or seniors – have a support network, the rates of depression, job loss, and suicide decrease,” Hurtubise says. “Simply by being a place where people can gather, we know that it has the potential to improve mental and physical health outcomes across the board.”
Across the board doesn’t just mean for the specific LGBTQIA+ community, either. Hurtubise says it means the entire community of individuals, allies, and even those who may not understand their mission. That’s part of a functioning, thriving, healthy, vibrant community, she says.
“There are a few people who are perhaps not comfortable with our mission, but that’s why we're here,” she says. “That’s why there’s an open sign on the door. Come in, let’s talk. Let’s learn about what we’re doing here. I really believe that at a community level, we can do a lot of great things. That’s really part of our mission, which is to bring solidarity and support for the benefit of the entire community.”
During Pride Month last June, over 40 downtown businesses proudly displayed Blue Water Allies’ pride flag in their windows. Originally anticipating about 350 people for Blue Water Pride, Hurtubise says over 1,200 people showed up. Although there was no admission charge, many donations were given to further the nonprofit’s mission.
“We have an artist’s circle that meets every Thursday,” Hurtubise says. “It's a collaborative time in the evening for people to bring their own artistic pursuits and join together in community to do art. We have all ages in the group, illustrators, people working with clay, painters, and more. It’s really just a time to sit, do art, have fun, and be safe.”
Other social groups meet on weeknights to chat, play games, or sing karaoke together.
“These social groups really provide that mental, physical, and emotional support without having a structured support group so to speak,” Hurtubise says. “It’s really just a place for people to come and be safe.”
For those interested in learning more about Blue Water Allies or its programming, visit bluewaterallies.com