As soon as he started taking lessons at Ballet West Academy, 8-year-old Lucas Horns was hooked. He decided he could be a professional dancer, and a decade later, his dream came true. Now 24, Horns is in his sixth season with Ballet West.
But shortly after joining the company, Horns found himself in a “dance bubble,” aware that his life was revolving around his art. “It’s really easy to get pretty obsessive about ballet,” he said. “You can end up eating and breathing ballet.”
In volunteering, he found a new passion. Now Horns spends every Sunday staffing the front desk at a shelter for homeless youths in downtown Salt Lake City and running a support group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender clients there.
Horns describes his volunteer work at the Youth Resource Center as his version of church.
“I’m not super religious, but I think you can get closer to God just by getting closer to more people,” he said. “It connects me to humanity.”
The Youth Resource Center, 888 S. 400 West, is run by the Volunteers of America Utah. It serves young people ages 15 to 22 who are homeless or at risk of being homeless, providing meals, pantry food, showers, life-skills groups, case management for housing and employment and dental and medical care assistance.
There also are washing machines and clothing available. At night, it becomes an emergency shelter, with beds for 30 clients.
The discussions Horns leads on Sundays generally draw two to 10 teenagers and young adults. Sometimes he schedules a specific topic to discuss; other times, the clients bring up what’s on their minds.
The gatherings have featured talks on safe sex and consensual sex; discussions about what a good relationship looks like; and lessons about gay history, including one on Harvey Milk, the San Francisco gay rights activist who was assassinated in 1978. Harvey Milk Boulevard, which is at 900 South, runs along the south side of the Youth Resource Center.
The group sometimes talks about current events, and youths who participate have written letters to Congress.
Straight young people also attend the gatherings, and their comments can surprise gay youths, who aren’t always sure they will be accepted and sometimes go back in the closet when they become homeless.
“Some of the best input and the best questions have been from the straight clients in the group,” Horns said.
The straight members have wondered why marriage equality is controversial. One made a comparison between people who like chocolate ice cream and those who like vanilla, saying, “It’s just what you are.”
“It’s coming from the straight clients and so I think it’s really comforting to hear that for queer clients,” Horns said.
On a recent Sunday, Horns and some of the young people assembled flags that were staked in yards to mark Transgender Remembrance Day on Nov. 20. As they worked, they talked about relationships, family, acceptance, racism and other issues on their minds.
These types of discussions are what draw people to the group. An 18-year-old cited a debate on a previous Sunday over whether being gay or transgender was a choice.
“I really appreciated the discussion,” said the teen, who says being gay isn’t a choice. “Discussions like the one that Lucas has honestly help other people to be open-minded, especially here in Utah. Lucas is a good guy. He definitely cares deeply about other people.”
Horns was born and raised in Salt Lake City, and his first role at the academy was a boy attending a party in “The Nutcracker.” While he has performed in many other productions as an adult, he’s still dancing “The Nutcracker” — performing this weekend in Ballet West’s run at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Among his favorite parts — and one he considers personal — was a duet with another man in “Dances for Lou,” choreographed by Val Caniparoli to mark the centennial of composer Lou Harrison’s birth. The duet performed by Horns and Jordan Veit at The Joyce Theater in New York City last year drew praise from reviewers in The Village Voice and elsewhere.
“Caniparoli’s choreography took full advantage of the possibilities of having them lift each other, assist in turns, leaning, pushing and pulling,” Andrew Blackmore-Dobbyn wrote on the website Bachtrack. “They were superb.”
Horns first got involved in volunteering through his LGBTQ advocacy. He wanted to attend a gala hosted by the Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights organization, but couldn’t afford to buy a ticket, so he volunteered at the event.
After VOA opened the Youth Resource Center in 2016, Horns started helping out by occasionally making meals there and then began going every week. He was drawn there because gay youths have a higher rate of homelessness, and the VOA estimates that 30 percent of the center’s clients identify as LGBTQ.
“For a lot of clients, they’re choosing to live here because home life is worse,” said Horns, who feels fortunate that he has a supportive family. “I feel it’s the responsibility of us lucky people to pay it forward.”
An 18-year-old client said the group discussions Horns leads help him a lot; he likes that the participants open up. “This is one group that I look forward to,” he said.
A 21-year-old straight woman said she also benefits from attending the support group. “It helps to know we all are different and we shouldn’t be afraid of who we are,” she said.
On Utah Philanthropy Day last month, Horns received the Outstanding Young Volunteer Award in part for his work with VOA Utah. In a Ballet West video celebrating his award, VOA director of volunteer services Jayme Anderson described how he helps all young people at the center and brings along friends and family as he volunteers.
“Every time that Lucas walks in,” she said, “he’s telling those kids that they matter and the community is stepping forward to help them.”
Horns says his contribution is just one of many that make the resource center a success. “I think this place, as a whole, changes people’s lives.”
Holiday donation drive
Volunteers of America Utah is holding a holiday donation drive to help provide services for community members suffering from homelessness, mental illness and addiction. The nonprofit serves more than 10,000 people in the state each year.
Among other donations, VOA is seeking cash, gift cards, bus tokens, warm clothing for children and adults, hygiene items, diapers, household items, school supplies and coloring books. Also on the list is a playground for the Center for Women and Children.
To donate, visit https://www.voaut.org/holidaydonations. You also can make a purchase from the center’s Amazon Holiday Wish List and the items will be shipped directly to VOA. To help with the Fill the Pack program, which provides homeless youths with backpacks full of hand warmers, socks, underwear and other items, visit www.voaut.org/fillthepack.
All donations can be delivered daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to the sorting facility at the Youth Resource Center, 888 S. 400 West, Salt Lake City.
For volunteer opportunities, go to https://www.voaut.org/volunteer.