How one SF leader is helping queer youth emerge stronger from the pandemic

‘Many of us are looking for a safe haven’

Nestled among the Castro’s colorful storefronts and sidewalks sits a purple Victorian that queer youth have passed through for nearly three decades. The site is home to LYRIC, a nonprofit focused on providing an array of services for LGBTQ youth, from housing navigation to mentorship and mental health support groups.

While lockdowns helped get San Francisco through some of the worst parts of the pandemic, the strategy created a tough environment for some LGBTQ youth who were disconnected from friends and loved ones who support their queer identity. Even families doing all they could to help their little ones navigate the pandemic struggled without the same access to peer groups and mentors that provide community and comfort.

As the new executive director at LYRIC, Laura Lala-Chávez wants to welcome a new chapter for queer youth in The City, one that carries on the organization’s work in resource navigation while growing out capacity for events and community gathering for queer kids.

The Examiner sat down with Lala-Chávez on a recent afternoon to find out their plans for one of The City’s anchor institutions and what kids need now more than ever coming out of the pandemic. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What brought you to San Francisco?

I’m originally from the southern tip of San Diego, where I grew up on the Mexico side and went to school on the San Diego side. I’m the youngest of seven and grew up with a single parent. It was a great and loving home, but I was the only queer person in that family, and I think my mom just didn’t quite know what to do with me. So, when the opportunity came, I graduated from high school and decided to go to San Francisco State. And I absolutely loved it. I loved the diversity of thought and diversity of backgrounds and intersections. I’ve been here ever since.

Since then, I’ve worked for San Francisco Unified, YMCA and other organizations. When this chance came to work for LYRIC, an organization that I’ve been a fan of and that I’ve partnered with already, it was almost a dream come true, honestly.

What will be your top two or three priorities in this new role?

There are two things that are top of mind for me. One is, as you know, we’re still living through a global pandemic. We see this in every community, but specifically in San Francisco there are communities that were severely struggling pre-COVID that are even more impacted now. That includes our participants, youth of color, low-income youth, whether they have grown up in The City or are recent transplants.

Many of us are looking for a safe haven. We’re looking for a place where we can be authentically ourselves with no judgment where we could find our community. That’s what LYRIC has been doing for a long time. My initial vision is to focus on continuing to be that anchor for youth in The City.

Unhoused communities are also top of mind. How do we continue to be that haven for youth and provide wrap-around service, but also create a model where youth are just celebrated? It’s about meeting those basic needs, but also creating leadership opportunities like internships and supporting their mental health so that they can thrive.

What has it been like trying to create community and joyful experiences for youth during a global pandemic?

The staff just pivoted rapidly because we provide these critical services and resource navigation. They had to create that sense of belonging and fun and community that LYRIC is known for. I think we did great, but of course, there are challenges with technology, like lack of Wi-Fi and privacy and all these other issues. So we’re really happy that we’ve been able to kind of come back in person.

We opened our doors physically in September. We haven’t resumed special events or gatherings yet, but that is the plan. Some of our programs are back to being in person, some of them are still virtual, and really, we’re still trying things out. Interestingly, we started seeing an increase in participation from youth even outside The City for our virtual services.

One thing that’s back in person is our Q groups, which just started in some middle schools and high schools. These are support groups where we create community and belonging. We have a curriculum, and it’s a way for queer youth to gather and connect and talk about issues that are happening in their school community.

Lockdowns were devastating to some queer youth. What are you seeing on the other side of that now as students return to in-person school and activities?

The isolation, depression and anxiety that many youths we serve experience just surged during the pandemic. That was our biggest challenge during the pandemic in our virtual space. Depending on their living situation, it was just really difficult for some youth to engage and just be authentically themselves at home. That was a big indicator for us to go back to that person, to be able to kind of provide space where they are able to share more of themselves. We are definitely seeing a big need for that now.

A big chunk of what we do is just resource navigation. So we have a long list of other community partners we help youth navigate towards, everything from housing, navigation, food, mental health, you name it. Recovery for us is about strengthening our messaging and building coalitions with other organizations in The City.

Tell me about the renovation plans that LYRIC has underway.

We’ve grown in the last three or four years, substantially, and we’re expecting that trend to continue in the next couple of years. That was the intent behind this renovation project. How can we utilize this space in every corner to provide quality programming and continue to extend our services to youth?

We will be at the same location, but the new space will have areas for groups to gather. We will also have confidential space for support groups. There is a storage area in the backyard that hasn’t been used for years, and it’s going to be completely shifted into becoming a space for meetings and events. The air filtration system will be new. And we’ll have a welcoming area at the front where we currently don’t.

The neat part about this project is that youth are going to be involved in the design. We’re going to have a mosaic mural and we’re partnering with an interior design team that youth are also involved in.

What advice can you share for queer parents and parents of queer children about navigating this time?

I have two young, gender diverse kids. You’ll definitely see us engaging in community with other parents at parks, hiking, you know, as much as we can getting takeout or things like that. It’s all about exposure, exposure, exposure (to other LGBTQ people) for the little ones. And so we’re always in the Castro, we’re always in the Mission, in the Embarcadero or just anywhere we can engage and have thoughtful conversations and diversification.

There’s a huge percentage of us that experience family rejection. Absolutely. Without a doubt. But I also think there’s a percentage of us that have parents that want to educate themselves, that are trying to figure out how to best support their queer youth. The Queen and Trans Parent Advisory Committee that SFUSD is proposing is exactly a group of those people. And I do think that LYRIC can be an absolute partner in that and create opportunities for parents to learn, but also for kids to feel like there is support from their elders.

As a parent, I would absolutely be involved with a group like that, and I know there’s a lot of other parents trying to figure out how to navigate to best support their youngster. I would definitely do that.

sjohnson@sfexaminer.com

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