Sarah Morrison: Spreading holiday cheer to LGBT youth

I truly live by the adage, “’Tis better to give than to receive.” Not that I mind receiving, but I love getting gifts for other people. I keep an eye out for things year-round and my basement is full of “I know someone will love this!” purchases. So imagine my joy when I got a message from photographer Tara Lessard about a group looking for Secret Santas.

The organization is the Valley Youth House, a nonprofit working to find housing for homeless youth. If you weren’t aware, we have a shameful epidemic of homeless kids right here in ’Merica. A large number of those kids are LGBT or queer-identified. Many have run away or have been forced out of their homes because of their sexuality or gender identity. Adolescence is difficult enough to navigate — hormones raging, trying to figure out why/how you are different from the other kids and hoping your face will stay clear until they take your yearbook photo — so imagine being young, queer and homeless. Not an easy trifecta.

But thankfully, there are people who care and who are trying to do something about it. In the last five years, through its Pride Program, VYH has managed to move 111 LGBT youth into apartments. We spoke to Sarah Morrison, who runs the Pride Program, about what we can do to help.

PGN: Tell me about your work at Valley Youth House.

SM: I started out about eight-and-a-half years ago as a regular life-skills counselor in our supportive-housing program, which works with youth in foster care. It’s basically mentorship taken to another level; we meet someone and help them to identify what their goals are and how housing affects that. It’s hard to concentrate on a job when you’re worried about where you’re going to be sleeping at night. With the Pride Program, we work one-on-one with the youth to get apartments in their own names and help them with everything from knowing their rights as tenants to what to expect living on their own, how to turn on utilities in their names, paying rent on time to avoid eviction — things that might be considered basic, but they’re only basic once you’ve learned them. One of the things I think we do well is to make this a safe place for people to address challenges.

PGN: There’s a scene in Steve Martin’s “The Jerk” where he lives on his own for the first time and when the phone book comes with his name in it, he yells, “I’m somebody now! Millions of people look at this book every day! This is the kind of spontaneous publicity — your name in print — that makes people.” I remember feeling the same way when I got my first apartment and phone.

SM: Yeah, having something that recognizes you makes a difference. And even if they don’t succeed, they know they have support now. It’s OK to say, “I need more help” and look at it not as a failure but as a learning experience. The world isn’t always as nice, but we try to create a little bubble where they can feel supported no matter what, especially if they haven’t had that in the past.

PGN: What are some of the specific challenges faced by queer youth?

SM: We found a lot of LGBT youth who were being placed with foster-care families who weren’t embracing of them, which was often the reason for them being kicked out or running away. That’s what got us talking about starting a Pride Program.

PGN: What was the couch project about?

SM: In 2009, we received a grant that allowed us to open up the Pride Program, which specifically works with LGBT youth 18-21. It’s great but we know we need to do more so we put together the Shelter and Pride campaign, which is an awareness and fundraising component. A lot of homeless kids (51 percent in our last survey) are invisible because they couch-hop, rotating from friend to friend, without a home to return to. They’re not sleeping on the street or in the open, but they are homeless. So we came up with the program #CouchesDontCount to raise awareness. We put couches around the city — in front of Barnes and Noble, at the Constitution Center and in front of Woody’s — with volunteers posted to tell people about the program. It was great to have the young people be able to tell their stories. I was really proud of them. We had a guy named Noah who did a speech for our press conference, which was published as an op-ed. He was really nervous about being out because his parents are super-religious. There were many courageous youth who stepped up. And it really was a call to action that we needed. Currently, I’m the only counselor in the Pride Program and there’s a limit to what I can do, but the need is limitless. We’d like to do more. It’s not like at 21 you magically know everything to function on your own as an adult. At 23, 24, 25, people are still trying to figure things out and, without support, it’s tough. So the next step is to expand the program until 22; it’s not optimal but it’s one more than 21. It’s that many more people we can help.

PGN: Two stories that really moved you?

SM: Come on, in eight and a half years there are too many to choose just two! Everyone who walks through these doors has something about them that’s inspiring. They’ve all faced some sort of adversity and have taken steps to overcome it. It would be like picking out your favorite kid to just single out one; each story is unique.

PGN: Where are you originally from?

SM: Canada. Ottawa, Ontario. My parents were both American and when I was 10 my father lost his job in Canada, so we moved back to the states to be closer to my grandparents. I grew up mostly in State College, Pa., near Penn State, which is where I went to school.

PGN: Who has the better anthem?

SM: Oh, Canada, of course. Now everyone’s going to hate me but the reason I say that is because I played on Team Canada’s roller-derby team.

PGN: Roller derby?

SM: Yes, when I first moved to Philadelphia I went to a club with some friends and met some of the women from Philly Roller Girls as they were recruiting people to play. I went to one of their bouts and really enjoyed it. I’ve played sports all of my life — basketball, softball and golf in high school, and racquet ball and squash in college — and I’ve always been very competitive. I hadn’t skated since I was 7 in the basement but I thought, Hey, there are tryouts next week, I should go! So I went and was pretty bad but they didn’t care. I made the team and started the “Fresh Meat” training program and I got better.

PGN: How did you end up on the Canadian team?

SM: I played for Philly and in December 2013 I also tried out for the national teams. The Canadian team had seen footage of me skating from the International Women’s Flat Track Association and flew me in to try out. I went to the trial near Toronto and made the team. I got to play in England and France with them, including playing a men’s team in France. I was very proud of it.

PGN: What was your derby name?

SM: I don’t want to say! It’s disgusting.

PGN: Who picked it?

SM: I did. Well, I was having a hard time picking a name so friends were throwing out suggestions. One of them said how about Heavy Flo? I thought, That’s so gross … but you know what? It’s actually very fitting. I’m a larger girl — make that woman — and I think that the strength that I have, the power, are symbolic of my larger size. But I’m also very graceful: a larger person who floats around the track and will be right there when you don’t anticipate it. For that reason, I thought, Why not? One thing that’s great about derby is that they embrace all body types.

PGN: Tell me about your family.

SM: My parents are retired but they both worked in a hospital and I have one brother.

PGN: So you have a family tradition of service-type jobs.

SM: Yeah, a lot of teachers and volunteer firefighters. We like helping people.

PGN: When did you come out?

SM: I came out to my family after college. I knew that they weren’t going to be positive about it and I wanted to make sure I graduated college first. So I came out when I was 21 and, as expected, it didn’t go very well.

PGN: Were they religious? Conservative?

SM: More on the conservative side. My father is atheist but my mother is more spiritual or religious. But I think, especially with her being a nurse at that time, their concerns were more on the medical side of things, the fear that I’d end up becoming HIV-positive.

PGN: Did you ever hear any slurs when you were growing up?

SM: I think we had different views about lots of things. I remember my mother would use the term, “He’s funny” to describe someone gay, which was very confusing. I was like, I don’t understand what’s funny.

PGN: What prompted you to move into the field you did?

SM: I was always taught and brought up to just do good, whether it was being involved with a church or a community center or whatever. I remember my mom telling me in high school that my only job was to get good grades but, as soon as I graduated, it was time to start working. She had an article clipped for AmeriCorps and suggested I give it a try. I applied with them and I don’t know how or why, but I got a job with them working at an after-school program in Central Pennsylvania.  It was eye-opening and awesome. There are things that I was sheltered from growing up. I mean we weren’t super-wealthy but seeing poverty in an extreme setting really opened my eyes a lot. As a young person it really energized me to want to help people and make a change.  

PGN: AmeriCorps was started by Bill Clinton, wasn’t it? I seem to remember my mother being a part of the launch in Philadelphia. It’s based on the Peace Corps but designed to help people in need domestically. And it’s a great opportunity for people to learn new skills and jobs.

SM: Yeah, it was a great way for me to get my foot in the workplace door. I interned at a shelter and when my year was over I continued with them. The things I learned with AmeriCorps still influence things I do now. The fact that I was in the trenches and saw what it was like for someone to be separated from their families by choice or not, whether it was a 14-year-old runaway or the 16-year-old who had been removed from the home because of abuse, it really heightened your empathy and sensitivity.

PGN: I’m glad the program works, it’s such a great idea. So, if you were a punctuation mark, which one would describe your personality?                 

SM: What do you call it when you write the three dots, an ellipsis? Because everything in my life is evolving and continuing, open-ended. Because I don’t have a definitive answer … but I’ll get one. Or if there were a symbol for the Energizer Bunny because people always tell me they don’t know how I go so hard at everything so fast and for so long.

PGN: Pet peeves?

SM: Nail biting or picking. Or being rude; it rubs me the wrong way when people are rude or act entitled. Making people feel not so good about themselves would be a big pet peeve.

PGN: Sexiest non-sexual body part?

SM: I’d have to say the brain. It’s very attractive when somebody is intelligent, when they’re patient, composed and think things through.

PGN: Favorite childhood toy?

SM: I had a scooter that I really liked, and the game Mousetrap was fun. Oh, and I had a little recorder that I would tape myself on and then I’d record music on it and make my own little radio program.

PGN: The first podcast!

SM: Yeah, and then later I started making videos too, my own little sketch comedies.

PGN: So let’s get back to Christmas and the Secret Santa. How is that working?

SM: Well, we’re matching people up with 250 youth.

PGN: After the holidays or if the Secret Santa slots are taken, what else can people do to help?

SM: Right now it’s financial help that’s allowing us to provide more services for the people in the program. We have people entering the program all the time, so gift cards are great, especially for the Secret Santa for kids who enter too late to create a wish list. We can always use help with the Youth Count, which is where we go into the streets and do surveys with homeless youth. We have an Amazon wish list of items that we need to distribute: soap, razors, deodorant is a big one, raincoats, there’s a whole list. We do that quarterly and the next one is Jan. 27. We collect for that year-round and if you purchase on Amazon, they mail the actual items to us and we get them to the young people who need them. We do a great fundraiser in March; it’s a casino night called Always Bet on Youth and it’s really fun. This year we’re doing a masquerade theme and there are always ways to help; if you can’t donate time or money, be creative. If you are a waiter, ask your manager if they will donate a gift certificate for the silent auction. When you go to get your hair cut, ask the salon if they’ll donate something. If someone wants to have a third-party fundraiser and raise money or collect goods, that’s great too. As for the day-to-day help, there’s likely something that everyone can do. Most dentists have toothpaste and brushes, so ask for a few extras and drop them off. We have two different groups of people we help: some where we pay for their apartments and some who are still in a shelter or on the street while we’re trying to find housing. So household goods to help someone start out — dish soap, linens, TVs — is great, but even something as small as snacks or food to give people who come in to the office who haven’t eaten is helpful. If you work in a restaurant and have bagels left over, donate them. Having food when you sit and talk with someone makes a big, big difference. 

For more information about Valley Youth House’s Secret Santa program, visit www.valleyyouthhouse.org/events/holiday-gift-drive/

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