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(Photo: NOEL CELIS, AFP/Getty Images)
Kaila White, The Republic | azcentral.com Published 5:27 p.m. MT July 28, 2017 | Updated 6:52 p.m. MT July 28, 2017
"Imagine if your home burned," Iris Mittenaere said. "It’s hurting (you) because you have memories in this place."
For many young LGBT people in Phoenix, that's exactly how it feels.
Mittenaere, who is the current Miss Universe, spent Friday afternoon with youths and staff who were displaced by arson earlier this month at one.n.ten, a non-profit that serves lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people ages 14 through 24.
The center caught fire July 12, injuring no one but destroying supplies, electronics and the building itself.
The Phoenix Fire Department is investigating the fire as arson after video showed a man emptying a gas can on the floor and stepping outside just before a room goes up in flames. Officials on Friday announced an arrest in the case.
Four one.n.ten youth leaders talked with Mittenaere about what they've lost.
"When I go to the center, that’s my place of home; that’s my place of relaxation, and seeing that video is disheartening," one of the youth leaders, 22-year-old Justin Jones, told her. "It’s like I can't imagine. I feel like I lost my home."
'I can definitely say it saved my life'
Mittenaere won the 2017 pageant representing France and was in Phoenix for the Miss Teen USA Competition taking place Friday and Saturday evening at Symphony Hall.
"I’m here to learn their stories ... I want to speak for them," she said, just before the group gifted her with a pin bearing one.n.ten's logo, a rainbow in the shape of a circle.
The leaders talked of their experiences with one.n.ten's programs and services, which include counseling, camp, youth support groups, housing and a high-school program.
"I had got out of high school, and I had no other place to go to," said Xavier Galvan, 19. "I sought out one.n.ten for a fresher start and a family, and for a housing program."
"I can definitely say it saved my life, plus many other lives as well," he said.
Mittenaere said the non-profit's work is "beautiful" because it helps the participants understand that "you are important and that other people are important for you."
"You need a family," she said. "A family without a home, that’s not good. You need a new home."
Pain over the suspect, a former participant
The suspected arsonist is 26-year-old Darren William Beach Jr., who was a participant in one.n.ten programs but aged out of eligibility when he turned 25.
He was taken into custody at his apartment, fire officials said Friday.
Galvan said the fact that the suspect is one of their own has made the fire especially painful for the community.
"It’s heartbreaking to know their safe bubble was broken, especially by one of our former youth," he said.
"A lot of them are saddened, angry … They have a little rage in them because it was their home. Everyone started at that place."
However, he said, they are all excited for the new center and looking forward to “making it home again.”
Touring one.n.ten's soon-to-open center
The group met in the non-profit's temporary facility inside the Parsons Center for Health and Wellness in downtown Phoenix.
One.n.ten had previously started construction on a new center in that building and is hosting programs there temporarily until the permanent center opens in September.
Staff gave Mittenaere a tour through the new facility, which is bright and spacious but still under construction with exposed drywall, raw concrete floors and hanging plastic.
The now-destroyed, former center was 3,000 square feet, and the new facility will be 5,500 square feet, according to one.n.ten Director of Finance Nate Rhoton.
That includes a brand-new classroom to house Q High, the nonprofit's schooling program for students from seventh to 12th grade. The bigger classroom will allow them to expand the class size from 14 students to 36, Rhoton said.
How to help one.n.ten
Many have supported one.n.ten since the fire, including Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner, who announced Thursday she will give a $5,000 donation to the organization. Phoenix Mercury later added another $1,000 to the donation.
Chelsea Clinton tweeted about the arson Friday, calling it "evil."
Those who are interested in helping one.n.ten can donate at onenten.org or purchase items from the organization’s Amazon wish list.
They are especially seeking camping equipment before Camp OUTdoors!, a summer camp for LGBT youth, in September.
Galvan said he feels "very honored" by the attention the organization has received since the fire.
"All these people from everywhere, different cultures, different backgrounds are coming to support and pay their respects," he said. "It brings elation to me and others."
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