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Wings & Tigers celebrate Mark Erwin as Pride Month Game Changers honoree

Ruth Ellis Center Director of Development and Advancement providing critical resources to LGBTQ+ young people in metro Detroit

by Jennifer Rogers @DetroitRedWings /

DETROIT -- "I was planning on being a Rockstar," Mark Erwin said.

Though he is not performing on stage every night, Erwin is absolutely a Rockstar.

As the Director of Development and Advancement at the Ruth Ellis Center in Highland Park, Mich., Erwin is making an impact every day in the lives of LGBTQ+ young adults. Because of his tireless work at the Ruth Ellis Center, Erwin has been named the final Red Wings and Tigers Pride Month Game Changers honoree.

"Our Game Changers program centers around elevating and celebrating local individuals who selflessly give time and energy in support of others," said Red Wings and Tigers director of community impact Kevin Brown. "We're proud to provide a year-round platform for so many local organizations -- like Mark Erwin and the Ruth Ellis Center -- that enrich the lives of young people every day."

Erwin did not take the traditional route to the nonprofit sector. A graduate of Interlochen Arts Academy in northern Michigan as a voice major, Erwin went on to study audio production and engineering while in college in Minneapolis, Minn.

After graduating, one of his professors approached Erwin with a director position with the School of Rock. This is where Erwin's passion for youth programming was sparked, and how impactful creating an environment that is welcoming and allows young people to be who they are truly is.

Video: Game Changers Round Table | Pride | Comerica Bank

Erwin moved back to Michigan in 2011 and was eager to continue working with youth, but this time, in the nonprofit sector. While volunteering at a local LGBTQ+ center, Erwin connected with Laura Hughes, the Executive Director at the Ruth Ellis Center.

"(Hughes) gave me a tour of the space and it was an instant feeling of this is exactly where I'm supposed to be," Erwin said. "A space for young people to just show up and be themselves and be celebrated for that."

Three months later, the position of Director of Programs at the Ruth Ellis Center opened. Erwin interviewed and was hired.

"I think a lot about me as a gay man growing up in Royal Oak," Erwin said. "When I was in high school, it wasn't safe for me to come out. The moment I went to Interlochen, I think it was the second day I was in my dorm -- 16 years old -- sat down with my roommate and came out because I knew it was a safe place to do that and I thrived in that setting.

"So, I too had a similar experience at that age of what can happen when you are given the opportunity to shine. That stuck with me for a long time and I think that inevitably is what led me here, to Ruth Ellis Center."

The Ruth Ellis Center was founded in 1999 with the mission to create opportunities for LGBTQ+ youth to build their vision for a positive future. The center provides trauma-informed services for LGBTQ+ youth, with a focus on young people of color, experiencing homelessness, in the child welfare system and/or experience any barriers to their health and wellbeing.

The Ruth Ellis Center is dedicated to working toward the ultimate goal - a world where LGBTQ+ youth are safe and supported, no matter where they go. The organization provides services and programs to the LGBTQ+ youth and young adult communities, including outreach, skill-building, safety-net service, HIV prevention programs and addressing and helping LGBTQ+ youth of color through their dedication to embedding racial equity and transformative justice into all of their work.

"There may be young people who come to Ruth Ellis Center who are experiencing homelessness or other barriers and it may not necessarily be entirely as a result of their sexual orientation or gender," Erwin said. "Race plays a huge role in their experience as well, with the majority of young people served at the Ruth Ellis Center identifying as black or a person of color.

"We've always recognized that to effectively provide care and services to the young person, we have to meet them where they are and we have to acknowledge, respect and work towards meeting their needs based on their own unique intersection of race, gender, age and socioeconomic status. All of those things are extraordinarily important."

When Erwin joined the Ruth Ellis Center, as the Director of Programs, he oversaw all of the incredible services that the center provides to LGBTQ+ young people in the community. In 2013, Erwin transitioned to his current position, the Director of Development and Advancement.

In this capacity, Erwin is responsible for developing strategic partnerships, special projects, all external communications, public relations and all major fundraising events and initiatives.

As is the case with any nonprofit, fundraising is massively critical, and for Erwin, this comes with unique hurdles to overcome and an imperative message.

"It is really important that we acknowledge the classism and racism that has existed within philanthropy over many decades," Erwin said. "Rethinking how we approach philanthropy here at Ruth Ellis Center, to not only level the playing field, but also to provide opportunities for young people to tell their story rather than me doing it for them.

"Finding that balance of lifting voices and providing platforms for those who haven't had an opportunity to help that in the past versus exploiting the challenges young people are facing in an effort to raise money is something that I'm incredibly conscious of."

The impact of the Ruth Ellis Center and the work of Erwin in the Detroit community is evident. The center gives LGBTQ+ young people the resources and safe space to excel and achieve their goals. The Ruth Ellis Center identified a specific need in the community, not by determining what resources these young people need but rather being responsive to their concerns, needs and challenges.

"The LGBTQ+ community has sort of been lumped into this one long acronym, as if each and every one of us shares the same background and experience, and it's not the case," Erwin said.

It is because of Erwin's critical work and tireless efforts with the Ruth Ellis Center that he is being recognized by the Red Wings and Tigers.

"The Detroit Red Wings and Tigers have a long-standing relationship with the Ruth Ellis Center and their mission to support LGBTQ+ young people in metro Detroit," Brown said. "We're honored to celebrate Mark Erwin as a Game Changer for his tireless approach to continuing the advancement of services and support that encourage young people to be who they are."

But recognition is not what drives Erwin, though he is incredibly grateful.

"Those of us who are involved in this work aren't doing it for recognition, we're doing it because it's something that we're really passionate about, "Erwin said. "Being acknowledged in this way is really cool, not something that's ever expected, but when it does happen, it's a really special moment.

"I was just telling my parents that I was thinking back to my time in high school in Royal Oak and how afraid I was to acknowledge my own sexual orientation. Now all these years later, I'm going to be honored for my work supporting the LGBTQ+ community as an openly gay man."

The work of the Ruth Ellis Center and Erwin relies on the community for involvement and support. To execute their programs and services, they need volunteers, donations and people to take part in their fundraising initiatives.

"My work over the last 10 years at the Ruth Ellis Center has been speaking with communities, individuals and companies to help them truly understand what we do and what makes it significant. And I would love for the name Ruth Ellis Center to be recognized as an organization that has really done the work and has done it with intention and integrity."

When asked what his personal goals are in his position at the Ruth Ellis Center, Erwin simply stated: "The ultimate goal is to work myself out of a job."

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