Building a community accepting of all: The origin of Whitley County Pride

Choosing a place to settle down and plant roots for your future family can be as intimidating as it is exciting. With the right combination of safety, education, and opportunity, it can feel easier to ensure your life blooms into the vision you’ve always dreamed of. 

Ashley & Savanna Fettig Savanna Fettig and her wife, Ashley Fettig, thought they had found the perfect combination to cultivate a life in Columbia City. To them, Whitley County was a community of small-town values, high-end education, and is close to several different industry leaders.  

But after moving in late May, it took less than a week for Savanna and Ashley to start questioning if their relationship as an LGBTQ+ couple would be accepted in their new small town when two organizations came under fire for supporting the LGBTQ+ community. 

Camp Whitley, a summer camp near Troy Cedar Lake for children ages 7-14,  had hired several openly gay camp counselors and asked parents for their campers’ preferred pronouns on registration forms. A large group of parents called into the camp, expressing concerns about the camp’s hiring decisions and the pronoun question on their forms.  

The Camp released a statement on its Facebook page stating, “To align ourselves with the American Camp Association recommendations, we include a question on our form asking registers for their preferred pronouns. Moving forward, we will continue to have this question on our form, but it will no longer be a requirement to answer.”  

Camp Whitley also went on to explain that by law they cannot discriminate against who they hire. 

“Rather than discriminate when hiring at Camp Whitley, we look for staff members that are self-motivated, have conversation and listening skills, are collaborative with others, have strong conflict resolution skills, have integrity and grit, and above all else, want to create a special environment for children to thrive and make memories to last a lifetime,” the post reads.

Shortly after, The Peabody Library followed the upset by creating two displays in honor of Pride month. The displays were titled “Read with Pride'' and featured books that were written by or about members of the LGBTQ+ community. 

After receiving comments from the public, the county commissioners sent out a statement addressing the library, and seeming to reference the Camp Whitley controversy as well by saying, “We do not support the promotion of sexuality being displayed at the Peabody Public Library and feel it is the responsibility of the parents to provide their children with sexual education, not the library, summer camps, or other public entities.” 

The county commissioners do not fund or oversee the library in any way, but it’s letter encouraged residents to reach out to the library’s board of trustees. The library stood firm on its decision and kept the displays up until the end of June. According to reporting done by WBOI News, in past years, the library has attempted to put up Pride displays but has taken them down after any negative feedback. Last year was the first time the display remained up all month, despite an influx of negative comments.

While there was a lot of negative feedback, those in support of the displays made their feelings clear as well. Toward the end of the month, through a collective effort, supportive residents checked out every book from the display and catered lunch for library staff.

Library Executive Director Mike Ashby told 21 Alive News, “Presenting information about individuals that are different than you, I don’t think is a wrong thing.” 

The criticism toward the two establishments caused Savanna to question whether they had made the right decision. 

Ashley & Savanna Fettig “I started questioning if this was the right move to come here,” says Savanna. “We didn’t feel comfortable or safe to even hold hands down at First Fridays or around town.”

The South Bend/Michiana transplant says felt she had traded the feeling of being welcome but unsafe for a safer town that made her and her family feel highly unwelcome. 

But Savanna says she refused to believe that she was alone. With the support of her friends and coworkers, Savanna created an invite-only Facebook group for LGBTQ+ members, their families, and allies to connect and find community in a town where they felt others wanted to erase their existence. 

With just her current contacts and their contacts, she accepted over 200 members to the group within a couple of weeks. What she discovered within those requests was that many people had lived in Whitley County but then moved away for one reason or another– and almost none of them could believe that Columbia City had a Pride group. 

“So many people here and in the county are part of the LGBTQ community,” Savanna says. “Before, it wasn’t talked about, which made people feel like they were not welcome here, whereas now we are dealing with people talking about it.”

Savanna decided it couldn’t just be a private group anymore, especially with so many people out of town wanting to be a part of what they were building. With the encouragement of the group and her inner circle, Savanna began to advocate for a Pride event or market that would support the LGBTQ+ citizens of Whitley County. 

Savanna knew she needed money to make this happen, but didn’t how to get started. She approached Candy Bower, the owner of Gamble Bower Love Out Loud Fund, a fund of Whitley County Community Foundation, set up to help those in the LGBTQ+ community gain access to mental health resources, and asked for her advice on how to proceed. Bower pointed Savanna to the Whitley County Community Foundation, which helped push Savanna toward officially registering as the nonprofit, Whitley County Pride.  

The group has since formally planned its first Prism Marketplace event, which will be held on Feb. 3rd at the Etna Troy Community Center from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The event focuses on gathering all LGBTQ and allied businesses in the community as a way to showcase that everyone is welcome in Whitley County.

“We want people to know they are accepted, loved, and welcome here,” Savanna says. “And that is the biggest thing– people come here, and they go, ‘Where I can go, where I can be safe?’”

Prism Marketplace had to close vendor applications after their 30 vendor spots filled up, and have had to turn away businesses away due to lack of room. 

Whitley County Pride is continuing far beyond one event. Savanna says the organization plans to expand its services to include support groups, community outreach events, and create member-only perks. The group is also in discussions with licensed therapists to provide support groups for not only LGBTQ members but also their families and loved ones. Whitley County Pride also plans to hold community clean-up days and holiday events for anyone who needs a place to celebrate the holidays. 

Savanna says she hopes to keep seeing change in the community as Whitley County Pride becomes more and more known for its services throughout the county. She hopes there will be a better future for everyone in the community.

Ashley & Savanna Fettig“I was leaving work one day and sitting at the stoplight,” she recalls. “I see an LGBTQ couple walk across the street holding hands, and it just hit me in the chest, because whether or not they have been personally affected by this group, we have a chance to do this. They gave me hope.” 

Savanna came in as an outsider of Whitley County and northeast Indiana. She sought a better place to raise her family and live happily with her wife. When Columbia City was perfect for her family in almost every way, she brought a new perspective and made changes. With her change, she has brought to light the other members of the LGBTQ+ community who, though they may live here, may have often felt alone or underrepresented. 

Now, there is a space for their voices to share in the resources and values of their small-town homes. 

“No matter how hard things are or how ugly things get, you can make a positive impact on somebody,” Savanna says. “And that impact on one person leads to another, which leads to another. Before long, you don’t even realize how big of an impact you have made.”

Savanna & Ashley Fettig
Editor's Note: After the production of this story, the author became involved with Whitley County Pride's board. She was not involved before or during the production of this story.
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