Coronavirus Community Check In: Jessie Hankins from LGBTQ Connection

Gay Carnivele: Talk a bit about your background, how you came to be involved with LGBTQ Connection, what your position there is, and what it entails.

Jessie Hankins: I’m the Program & Evaluation Manager at LGBTQ Connection, which is an initiative of On The Move. On The Move is also the parent organization of our sibling programs VOICES Sonoma and La Plaza in Santa Rosa, as well as Parent University in Sonoma Valley.  In my role, I manage all of LGBTQ Connection’s efforts here in Sonoma County, which center around creating a more visible and connected LGBTQ community, driven by the young people we work with. I also manage all of our evaluation-related activities for our program in both Napa and Sonoma counties. We are in year four of a five year state grant called the California Reducing Disparities Project. We were selected as one of seven state model LGBTQ programs doing innovative, community-defined work to address mental health disparities within our community. Our model focuses on building leadership skills with young people in order to create lasting change in their communities. I’ll have been at my position for 4 years this June. Time has really flown by! I came to LGBTQ Connection in the middle of my Masters program, looking for more non-profit experience and humbled at the opportunity to work for a cause that was very near and dear to my heart. LGBTQ Connection and On The Move’s emphasis on leadership development has allowed me to grow and develop as a leader, and for that I am incredibly grateful.

GC: How are you and your family doing during this pandemic?

JH: We are hanging in there. Luckily everyone is healthy and staying safe at home. My wife’s and my family are spread across the country so it’s been really interesting to see how different states are responding to our current crisis. I’m very grateful to our local and state leadership for acting quickly to flatten the curve. It’s hard to be away from family in times like this but in some ways I feel more connected than ever. Last weekend my whole family had a FaceTime tea party for my niece’s 8th birthday, it was so sweet!

GC: How is LGBTQ Connection continuing to serve it’s clients?

JH: We’ve transitioned all our services to remote platforms. We’ve shifted our free, all ages LGBTQ-affirming counseling services to phone calls and have offered weekly wellness phone calls to anyone who would like to be checked in on. In addition to our weekly hang outs for youth ages 14-24, we’ve also been experimenting with all types of different online events for many other parts of our communities, from a virtual “Cheers for Queers” happy hour to Facebook live cooking and dance classes, to online pictionary and group meditation. We’re looking to provide spaces for people to connect, forget about the virus for a bit, or learn a new healthy habit to help them get through this time. It’s been fun to get creative and try new things.

GC: Not all young LGBTTQ+ people live in situations that are ideal and/or understanding of their gender identity, sexuality. etc.  How is your non=profit helping young folks who are finding themselves in such situations?

JH: Unfortunately, this is very true. What we most want to emphasize is that just because someone is not in an affirming space at home, we don’t want to let that get in the way of the support they need. It’s possible to be in communication with us without outing themself. We are encouraging people (young or any age) in these situations to take a walk or step outside to participate in a group or individual check in. This has to be assessed on a case by case basis but it’s so important for young people in situations like this to have access to affirming people, and we are very committed to making sure they are able to do so. We also provide a variety of options: individual or group videos, phone calls, text messages, social media, websites. If there still are barriers to us providing the connection or service, we can also work with trusted allies at youth’s schools, mental health providers, and other community organizations that families–and their youth–know and trust.

We also are open to working with families who are struggling to understand or agree with their child’s identity. We know that if a family accepts or rejects who we are that affects us for the rest of our lives. We want families to know that they are critical to helping their child grow up happy and healthy. There are things they can do to grow love and trust even if they don’t understand their child’s identity. Plus, we can help grow understanding, too.

GC: What tips can you offer young people who may find themselves in this situation?

JH: Take a walk every day and set up a phone check-in with an affirming person. Xfinity has opened up free WiFi hotspots all over, so find one close to you where you can access the internet and join in on a group or online event. There are some great 24 hour hotlines out there as well, so even if the only time it’s safe to make contact is in the middle of the night, there are still people out there who care and want to support you. 

The Trevor Project has 24 hour support available through the TrevorLifeline:1-866-488-7386,  by texting START to 678678, or online through TrevorChat at www.thetrevorproject.org/get-help-now/. 

The Trans Lifeline at 1-877-565-8860 and the LGBT National Hotline at 1-888-843-4564 are two other great 24 hour crisis hotlines. 

Our sibling program VOICES is still operating their youth center Tuesday-Friday, 12pm-4pm. If you are in need of essential services like financial assistance or food, you can drop in during those hours or you can send an email to jessie@lgbtqconnection.org or a text to 707-595-8961 if you’d like to see an LGBTQ Connection staff member in person.

GC: Suicide rates are much higher among younger LGBTQ+.  What is LGBTQ Connection doing to assist those who may be at risk and again what advice would you offer those who are experiencing depression during this Stay-at-Home order?

JH: Reach out and know you are not alone! While social distancing can make us feel more isolated, there is also opportunity for more connection. Maybe going to an in-person therapy session felt intimidating before. Now, you can set one up by phone–and for free! Trying to find little things that bring you joy is really important. If you need someone to talk to immediately please reach out to the 24 hour hotlines mentioned above.

GC: Is the LGBTQ Connection office open at all, perhaps for emergency situations?

JH: Since LGBTQ Connection Sonoma is located inside of Voices, which is still open and providing essential services, yes, we could meet at our office for essential services, like food, emergency financial assistance, or finding affirming resources. 

GC: Have LGBTQ Connection group leaders been reaching out to group participants and if so, what are they hearing about their time at home, away from support groups, and being kept from work/scholl/friends?

JH: Yes, we have checked in with all of our current and past youth leaders and participants to make sure they are safe and have all their immediate needs met. Many are struggling with online classes, some must continue to work as essential workers, and others are worried about income and housing stability. In spite of all of the extra stress, their resilience is always inspiring!

GC: I would imagine donations and even funding will or may be impacted.  What can our readers do to help LGBTQ Connection continue to provide services and support to LGBTQ+ youth and seniors?

JH: Yes, many of our big fundraising activities (Give Out Day and Pride events) have been cancelled or postponed. To support our work now, folks can head to our website: www.lgbtqconnection.org and click the donate button to make a donation. We really appreciate the support to continue our work during this difficult time!

GC: You recently completed your master’s thesis which explores the feasibility of a Sonoma County LGBTQ+ Community Center.  What can you tell us about your findings and conclusions?

JH: In my other role as a graduate student, this was such an exciting project to work on and I’m excited to see where it goes from here. I conducted the research in the hopes it might spark enough community interest and excitement to move the project forward. I have lots more to say on this that probably warrants a whole other conversation but I can tell you my main findings. One is that local LGBTQ people are looking for more ways to feel connected and have a sense of a unified community.  The other is that the process to opening a center must involve representation from all identities and orientations, especially those sometimes left out of other LGBTQ spaces, from the very beginning of the process.

GC: I know you are a very busy woman, so what else are you working on now?

JH: I’m wrapping up a three year project called #Out4MentalHealth  where I co-chaired a Sonoma County task force with Jessica Carroll of Positive Images. The project focused on making policy changes in our community to improve mental health outcomes for LGBTQ people. To wrap up the project, we’ll be hosting a virtual town hall on May 6th from 6-8pm to discuss current needs and resources for our local LGBTQ community during the pandemic. Outside of work I’m enjoying post-grad school married life, being a dog mom to our senior dog Charlie, and am looking forward to being in community with friends and loved ones some day soon!