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Safe Homes Annual Gala Returns This April

The COVID-19 pandemic squashed many community events over the course of its three-year reign of terror. However, it couldn't keep Safe Homes from hosting virtual galas to raise money in support of their LGBTQ youth support programs. The community organization hosted its annual gala online in 2020, 2021, and 2022. It wasn't until last year that they finally got the chance to return in person for the fundraiser.

April 2024

Read the original article on CM Pride

{ Maya Capasso }

The COVID-19 pandemic squashed many community events over the course of its three-year reign of terror. However, it couldn't keep Safe Homes from hosting virtual galas to raise money in support of their LGBTQ youth support programs. The community organization hosted its annual gala online in 2020, 2021, and 2022. It wasn't until last year that they finally got the chance to return in person for the fundraiser. Thankfully, it was a smashing success. "We raised over $160,000 for Safe Homes, which was far beyond our expectations for the first one back in person," explains Catherine Twing-Irish, the Senior Director of Advancement and Marketing for Open Sky Community Services, overseeing fundraising and marketing for Safe Homes. 

As Safe Homes prepares for the 2024 Gala on April 12th, the local LGBTQ community grows excited about the year's fundraising event. With VIP packages, a red-carpet photo station, delectable appetizers, and a silent auction, there's plenty of fun to build enthusiasm about the upcoming gala. But the reason Safe Homes organizes such an incredible event for the community remains the most crucial element: to raise money to fund programs to support Worcester and Central Massachusetts' LGBTQ youth. 


From 1995 to Today

Throughout Safe Homes' 29-year history, the program has shifted its focus from foster care to community support while retaining its core mission to provide safe spaces for LGBTQ youth in Massachusetts. During the 2022 Safe Homes virtual Gala, founder Judi Kirk shared details about the organization's history and shifting goals. In 1995, when the program started in Boston, it was created to help homeless LGBTQ youth find safe foster homes. "Once the funding for the original grant ended, the program moved to Worcester as the Safe Homes Project of Central Massachusetts. An informal group, including myself, gathered on December 11th, 1997. We formed a steering committee and two sub-committees– one focusing on foster care and one focusing on community engagement and drop-ins," Judi explains. 


That's when the program shifted towards creating programs outside the home for LGBTQ youth to seek support and build relationships with other LGBTQ individuals. "Even though we weren't focusing so much on foster care, we were still helping people find their safe homes in the form of chosen families and safe spaces to live, work, and play," she says. "As Safe Homes continues to grow to match the ever-changing needs of the community, we continue to believe that the youth voice is a determining factor in what this program looks like." No matter the changes in the organization over the years, one thing remains constant: the youth and their experiences are the driving factors for Safe Homes. 


Safe Homes Programs for LGBTQ Youth

Today, Safe Homes offers many programs for LGBTQ youth ages 14 to 23 designed to help them access education, community, and safe spaces to live, work, and have fun. Program Director Oscar Oliveira Soens facilitates Safe Homes' support network and community events. "I'm the face in the community. I'm building relationships. I'm working on getting Safe Homes out there, getting it connected, and creating opportunities for the people we serve," Oscar shares. "I think there's a lot of LGBTQ youth who feel isolated or struggle to feel hopeful when it feels like the world is burning. I want to give them opportunities to build resilience, find community, and get connected to the things they need."

Safe Homes provides many different programs and weekly meetups to facilitate its admirable mission. From the Transgender Resource Center, which offers free gender-affirming clothing, makeup, and chest binders, to a food pantry and hygiene supplies cabinet, Safe Homes is there to provide LGBTQ youth with the resources they need to both survive on a day-to-day basis and thrive as their authentic selves. Safe Homes also has a part-time clinician on staff to provide free one-on-one counseling and mental health support to those in need. Additionally, Safe Homes offers drop-in sessions multiple times per week for LGBTQ youth to meet up, access resources, and enter a safe space. 


Weekly Drop-Ins

"We offer drop-ins in Fitchburg on Tuesdays and at our Worcester office on Wednesdays and Thursdays. And we have a virtual drop-in on Mondays via our Discord," Oscar shares. Drop-ins look different every week. Sometimes, they're unstructured, so participants can come into a safe place to hang out and unwind. "Last week was our monthly free week where we don't have specific activities carved out. We were hanging out, eating pizza, and somebody was doing tarot readings, which was so cool," adds Oscar. 


Other weeks, the drop-ins have pre-planned activities to provide educational resources or allow youth to engage with their creativity. For example, Safe Homes collaborates with Planned Parenthood to help educate LGBTQ youth about safe sex, gender-affirming hormone therapy, and more. Safe Homes also works closely with the New England Botanic Garden at Tower Hill in an annual series called Project Bloom, in which participants get to visit the gorgeous gardens and create their own terrarium to take home. 

Because of the pandemic, Safe Homes was forced to remain virtual for almost three years. But since 2023, the program opened its doors in person again and began seeing major growth. "We're back to having in-person programming, and Oscar is doing a lot of outreach in the community," Catherine notes. "Safe Homes is over 25 years old, but I think we're in a different phase now, coming out of the pandemic and getting much stronger."


What to Expect from the Safe Homes Gala

One of the reasons Safe Homes continues to grow and offer more life-saving programming to LGBTQ youth is due to the financial support of the Central Massachusetts community. While many Open Sky programs receive a large bulk of their funding from the State, Safe Homes relies on individuals in the community for financial support. "Safe Homes doesn't have a lot of state funding sources. That's why the gala is so important," Catherine shares. "Most of our funding comes from individual donors, sponsors, and private foundations. That's really who we're trying to reach. It's those individual people who make a huge difference for the Safe Homes youth."

The 2024 Safe Homes Gala is the perfect event to help raise money to support the organization's efforts and bring LGBTQ people of all ages together to celebrate our community. It's held at the AC Hotel by Marriott in Worcester on April 12th. The VIP reception begins at 5 pm, and the general reception kicks off at 6 with a cash bar, silent auction, and appetizers. "What's also really fun about the gala is that it's an opportunity for everyone to come together in a safe space where they're encouraged to express themselves and have fun," explains Catherine. "Raising money is great, but I know last year, after the gala, I left with a positive feeling that everyone had a great time."


The People of Courage Awards

Not only does the Safe Homes Gala raise money to support LGBTQ youth, but it also spends time recognizing incredible people in the Central Massachusetts community for their role in making the world a better place for LGBTQ people. "The event has a dual purpose. The primary reason is to raise money. But it's also there to recognize the work being done in the community and the individuals, businesses, and organizations making a difference," Catherine says. 

The Gala's People of Courage Awards does just that. Throughout the year leading up to the event, the Safe Homes Advisory Committee considers many nominations for the awards. As a committee member, Catherine helps select the awardees each year. "We're recognizing the people and the organizations for their work. Then, afterward, we figure out what exact title we want to give the award. For example, we've had a community champion award for the last two or three years, but if we don't have someone who fits that box next year--we are not just trying to fill the boxes. We look at who the awardees are and then figure out what awards we can give," she explains. 

The committee chooses the honorees based on a few key factors. "Some of our awardees are making safe spaces for the community. Some are working in advocacy, and others make a difference just by being themselves and being bold, brave, and strong," Catherine shares. In 2023, recipients of the People of Courage Awards included Joshua Croke, the founder of the creative nonprofit "Love Your Labels," which helps LGBTQ youth explore their identity through fashion design. Marvin Nuñez won the Young Adult Award for his exemplary volunteer work with the LGBT Asylum Task Force, and many more organizations and individuals were honored for their work in the community. Safe Homes is excited to reveal the 2024 awards at the Gala in April this year.


A Safe Space for LGBTQ Youth

Safe Homes' annual gala brings Worcester's LGBTQ community closer every year while simultaneously raising funds for their essential community programming. Catherine's favorite part about being involved with Safe Homes is the sense of safety and welcoming the organization provides to not only the youth it serves but also its staff and the local community. "When the world feels scary and unsafe, it's important to have a space where you know that people are understanding, respectful, and willing to listen. A place where you can be whoever you want, whoever you are, not what the world tells you to be. And I think that's true of the Safe Homes program," she says. 

Oscar reminds us that at its core, Safe Homes is about lifting up LGBTQ youth. "What I love most about working at Safe Homes is the young people I work with. Their resiliency inspires me. For many, Safe Homes is the only place where they can express themselves and explore what makes them feel affirmed and seen. Safe Homes is a place where youth can come and try new ways of expression – new names, pronouns, and clothing – and they know that they will be accepted no matter what. Even youth who cannot attend in person due to issues with transportation, family, scheduling conflicts, etc., can connect with us and join our community online via our Discord," Oscar shares. "As a former youth myself (although not from Safe Homes), I know that every connection, every supportive element counts and can save lives." 

If you want to help support Safe Homes' incredible mission, you can visit the website at safehomesma.org to book your tickets for the 2024 Gala, make a donation, sponsor an event, or offer your services as a volunteer. The Safe Homes Gala is the perfect opportunity to mingle with fellow members of the local LGBTQ community while directly supporting LGBTQ youth in need.

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