A Safe & Welcoming Space for Rural LGBTQIA+ Youth

Members of the Lambert House Youth Committee in Volunteer Park at a summer field day event in 2016.
Today, we’ve featured Lambert House, a community-based organization that established 9 peer support groups for LGBTQIA+ youth across King County with Best Starts’ support. This is the second post in our ongoing blog series that dives into the importance of mental and emotional health during the COVID-19 pandemic. We hope to amplify our partner’s critical work and connect our community to additional emotional and mental health tools and resources through Community Well-Being, an initiative led by Best Starts.

This article was written by Seattle Pride Magazine and originally shared in their Fall 2020 issue. Parts of the article have been edited for clarity and reposted with approval. 

‘Drama Club’ Inspires Lambert House Expansion 

Fifteen years ago, in a rural Washington town, a high school drama teacher and her husband began hosting a stealth group for LGBTQIA+ students. These Friday evening “milk and cookies” gatherings were a safe space for youth to meet and make friends without fear of being outed or bullied by their classmates. They called themselves the Drama Club. 

It was a simple act by a couple who understood the need for a safe space for LGBTQIA+ youth living in a small town to gather and to be themselves without any repercussions. In 1981, Bob Deisher, M.D., founded what is now Lambert House with a similar vision – that social support from peers and trained adults would prevent health disparities such as depression, suicide, and drug addiction experienced disproportionately by LGBTQIA+ adolescents. That year Lambert House became the nation’s first independent, self-sustaining LGBTQIA+ youth organization to be designated as a charitable nonprofit. 

Ten years later, the old Victorian home on Capitol Hill where Lambert House is now headquartered opened its doors as a dedicated, daily safe space for LGBTQIA+ youth to meet. Over the years Lambert House programs continued to grow, serving a diverse group of youth ages 11-22 – more than 50 percent have been youth of color, and program participants come from more than 130 ZIP codes annually – further developing its recognition as a trailblazer in the LGBTQIA+ community. For the past two years Lambert House has been chosen by the U.S. State Department to train distinguished social service and governmental visitors from 30 countries in how to establish and deliver programs for LGBTQIA+ youth. 

For decades before he became Lambert House executive director, Ken Shulman had dreamed of supporting LGBTQIA+ youth in small towns, where the need is intense. He was inspired by the story of the Drama Club, run by someone in the community with stature – and who wasn’t gay, but understood the need. After speaking with the drama teacher, he thought a similar model could work for Lambert House – if he only had the budget to make it happen. 

Fortunately, in 2014, King County established the Best Starts for Kids (BSK) initiative. This voter-approved tax measure was designed for human services programs, particularly innovative ideas which needed a jump-start.  

Finally, Shulman’s dream was beginning to show promise. In 2017 Lambert House applied for BSK funding in hopes of establishing a dozen low-profile satellite peer support groups in small towns. 

Having secured funding, Shulman and his team had to select the geographic locations for the satellite peer support groups. They assessed the needs of each prospective town by contacting every high school in the 19 King County school districts outside of Seattle to speak with school counselors and gay-straight alliance (GSA) faculty advisors. 

Initially, they identified eight locations (Algona-Pacific, Carnation, Enumclaw, Fairwood, Lake Forest Park, Maple Valley, Snoqualmie Valley and Vashon Island), all of which shared a common thread – they had less than 30,000 residents. 

Jaelyn, who is a transgender woman, is president of her school’s GSA and is a regular participant in Lambert House’s Algona-Pacific peer support group. She explained that outing trans students at her school is a big issue and one she is working to change. In the meantime, there is significant fear for LGBTQIA+ members to come out. 

AJ, who has been involved with Lambert House’s Snoqualmie Valley group since its inception, joined as a youth member before becoming a facilitator. “I didn’t have access to a lot of services like this when I was a youth . . . it was isolating.” Lambert House, which follows strict guidelines to maintain youth anonymity, wants every person who is a part of the LGBTQIA+ community in the town to have access to the group while also keeping its members safe from being outed.  “[We advertise] there is an LGBTQIA+ youth group run by Lambert House in the area, and if you’re interested, you should contact [our program advisor],” said AJ. 

AJ and Jaelyn emphasized that these satellite groups are hugely impactful for students and youth who didn’t previous have access to LGBTQIA+ relevant that were welcoming resources and services.  

Sixteen-year old Kyle, who regularly visits the original Lambert House Drop-in Center in Seattle, concurs. “Until I found Lambert House, I felt completely alone . . . There was never a community for me at home or at school. Lambert House changed that. Here, I have friends and support and a community which doesn’t exist anywhere else.” 

Since establishing the initial eight satellite locations, Lambert House has secured spaces and facilitators to establish LGBTQIA+ youth peer support groups in four additional locations – Kenmore, Woodinville, Des Moines and SeaTac. 

Before the outbreak of COVID-19, groups met bi-weekly in each town. Groups have now moved their meetings online, allowing youth access to more meetings. “We’ve expanded so all satellite participants have access to multiple online groups every week, rather than one in-person group every other week,” said AJ. Including groups formerly run in-person at Lambert House’s Seattle facility, plus the King County-funded satellite groups, LGBTQIA+ youth now have access to 19 weekly online groups. Lambert House has also made a limited number of laptop computers available to low-income youth so they can connect socially through its online groups while physically distancing. The adjustment to online meetings has allowed more frequent access, but the personal connection still lacks. Says AJ, “The youth I’ve gotten to know, I love them so much. I hope we can be together in person again soon.” 

Lambert House youth and staff June 2018.

Until I found Lambert House, I felt completely alone . . . There was never a community for me at home or at school. Lambert House changed that. Here, I have friends and support and a community which doesn’t exist anywhere else.

Lambert House Pink Prom 2016

The Community Well-Being group, an initiative led by Best Starts for Kids, seeks to promote emotional health in our communities and in the County’s COVID19 response​ and center BIPOC individuals and communities who are most impacted by the intersection of racism and the pandemic. On the Community Well-Being website, you’ll find ways to connect with people who want to help including how to…

  • Talk to someone right now
  • Get help finding a counselor
  • Change the conversation on mental health
  • Connect to the Community Health Access Program (CHAP) for more community resources
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