Castro Therapy Center Expands Offerings, Starts Youth Group
Queer LifeSpace, the nonprofit queer therapy organization launched by former New Leaf: Services for Our Community therapists, is thriving and growing in the heart of the Castro.
In just over a year, the center, which offers low-income mental health services, welcomed its inaugural class of queer therapist trainees and is on the verge of launching programs for youth and people of color.
"One of the things that I really appreciate about Queer LifeSpace in general is the community-centered approach to mental health. Specifically, with this program bringing some young people through the doors who might not otherwise come here or who might not have or know of other places they can reach out to for help," said Kip Williams, one of the new trainees who formerly worked for the Trevor Project and will be working on the new youth program.
One of his first clients is a homeless youth who was brought into QLS by another clinician, he said.
Renee Zavislak, a 41-year-old bisexual woman who is one of the new trainees, expressed the importance of a therapy center that is more than simply queer-friendly, but is operated by LGBT people.
"What is really important about this program in particular is that it’s not simply a program that is queer-friendly, it’s about more than that. It’s about having a group of clinicians who are acquainted with and trained to deal with experiences that are unique to the queer community," said Zavislak.
Four former New Leaf mental health and substance abuse therapists founded the SF Therapy Collective, a for-profit counseling collective that is housed on the same floor in the Castro Street building, spearhead QLS.
The collective, which was launched by Nancy Heilner, Chris Holleran, Stacey Rodgers, and Joe Voors, is thriving with 200 clients, said Heilner, an out lesbian.
QLS was started to fill the gaping hole in mental health services left by New Leaf’s closure in 2010. It is self-sufficient, supported by client service fees and some individual donations, said Heilner, executive director. The organization is also no longer taking out loans from the therapy collective, she added.
QLS currently operates on nearly $60,000, added Rodgers, director of communications.
This year QLS was a beneficiary of the Castro Street Fair and it hosted a soda booth at last month’s Folsom Street Fair, said Heilner.
UCSF Alliance Health Project, which also provides a queer-friendly therapist training program, and Lyon-Martin Health Services’ mental health program folded in some of the displaced clients and mental health services once provided by New Leaf. Both organizations are also located in the Castro neighborhood.
Today, QLS sees an estimated 140 clients and supports two licensed social workers, seven post-master interns, and 10 volunteer licensed therapists, not including the four founding therapists who volunteer their services and provide individual and group counseling.
On August 30, QLS welcomed its first class of nine queer therapist trainees who will provide individual and group therapy. The trainees were selected out of more than 30 applicants from the California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco State University, UCSF, and the University of San Francisco.
"The group of trainees that we have are really amazing," said Heilner. "They are all very excited to be here and each of them has their own unique things to add to our program."
A place for youth
Three of the interns - Williams, Zavislak, and Dario Martinez - will focus on developing the organization’s new youth program being headed up by Holleran. It is expected to launch Saturday, October 20.
Holleran, 33, hopes to add to the services that are currently provided by other youth organizations in the city and neighborhood, he said.
"There can’t ever be too many services for youth," Holleran, who is gay, said, adding that the desire to offer youth services harks back to the providers’ own youth, "discovering our sexualities," filled with questions and needing help at the time.
Martinez, 46, a former fashion designer, reflected on the importance of the youth group he attended when he was young and coming out.
"I was personally in a queer youth group growing up. I really liked the social aspect of it," said Martinez, who went to a youth group as a student at UC Berkeley.
"I’m really excited," added Martinez, who explained that QLS’s youth group will center on the needs of the youth and their maturity levels. "It was such a huge part of my development as a gay man. I’m hoping to return that gift to other young people."
Williams, who helped with the 2009 March on Washington and Get Equal, hopes to empower youth in spite of the challenges they face through his work at the mental health organization.
He hopes to get young people to "find their power, to find their voice" in spite of the challenges they face from the outside world.
"I hope this program is a place young people can really be empowered to identify what it is what they want to do, what they hope for, find out who they are, and get the encouragement and support that they need to take those steps," said Williams.
Zavislak, who used to work in public schools in the northeast, hopes to be a connector to services for youth who seek support at QLS.
In time, Heilner and Holleran envision providing a full-fledge youth program similar to the one once offered by New Leaf, they said.
QLS currently offers a variety of therapy support groups, including abstinence, intersex, transgender, and support groups for men with disabilities, men’s relationships, and men’s trauma (see side bar for a listing of meeting times). A group for queer people of color is scheduled to start October 25.