Caring for our community
Safe Space NOVA
A safe place to be yourself
A group of teens pose with a Safe Space NOVA banner at a pride festival in Reston. (Photo: Safe Space NOVA)
When JoAnne Loiselet, AVP Human Resources Officer, was growing up, the world was not a welcoming place for LGBTQ+ youth.
“My best friend from high school and my best friend from college are gay,” she explained. “When I was in high school, in the 90’s, there was no place for anyone at our age to go. They never had a spot to be accepted for who they are.”
JoAnne knew she wanted to use her Making Change funds to help provide the support her friends needed when they were young. So she did some research and found Safe Space NOVA, a Northern Virginia organization for LGBTQ+ youth.
Safe Space NOVA’s mission is to create an environment where LGBTQ+ teens can feel safe being themselves and where they get help when facing challenges like stigma and bullying.
The organization was founded in March 2016, by Jordan L. Costen-Sumpter. Jordan first came to the Washington D.C. area in 2003 to attend college at Howard University. He started volunteering as a tutor for local high school students and soon discovered a love of mentoring.
When he was in graduate school, Jordan started thinking about how he could maximize the good he was doing, and he thought back to where in his life he could have benefited from more support.
“And I thought of myself at 14 not feeling I had anybody to talk to in my community, in my household… as it relates to being gay,” he explained. “When I thought back to that time, I said ‘I’d really love to be that support for another youth in the area.’”
At the time, there were no youth-oriented LGBTQ+ support groups in the Northern Virginia area, so Jordan decided to create one. But he worked in IT and had no experience running a nonprofit. So he started taking night classes at Northern Virginia Community College to earn a certificate in nonprofit administration and leadership.
“I was working during the day, still doing IT, building up Safe Space NOVA from the ground up, and also taking classes at night,” he said. “The goal was to create a space, curate a space, if you will, that would be supportive and affirming for LGBTQ youth.”
Left: A group shows off their Space NOVA sweatshirts. (Photo: Safe Space NOVA); Right: Jordan and students pose with pride flags. (Photo: Safe Space NOVA)
While the situation for LGBTQ+ youth has improved since Jordan and JoAnne were teenagers, these young people still face many obstacles and struggle with mental health issues as a result.
Jordan says he sees the levels of anxiety fluctuate, but that the stress from being LGBTQ+ in today’s world never completely goes away.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2021 69% of LGBTQ+ youth reported persistent feelings of hopelessness, almost twice as high as the levels reported by straight youth.
According to a Trevor Project survey, in 2022 half of LGBTQ+ teens aged 13-17 had seriously considered suicide, and 18% had attempted it.
Having access to a supportive space can save lives. The Trevor Project’s survey found that the rate of attempted suicide went down by more than half for young people that had supportive familes.
At Safe Space NOVA, teens have a place where they don’t have to feel so alone. Being in a group where acceptance is the expectation takes the stress and pressure off of socializing. It’s a place where kids can let their hair down and just be themselves.
The organization offers social and educational activities for kids from ages 14-18. They host in-person activities like board game nights and mini golf, and they have a bi-weekly virtual hang-out and support group online.
In June 2023 they hosted a New-York-City-themed “Pride Prom” at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Virginia. It was the second time Safe Space NOVA has hosted a prom, and over 100 students from all over the Northern Virginia area attended.
One couple who had been dating long distance and only ever met online were able to see each other in person for the first time at prom, Jordan said.
In fall and spring, Safe Space NOVA holds its bi-annual sexual education workshop, “You + Me = We: Queer Sex Ed.” The program takes place over four weeks and covers sexual health as well as topics like consent and how to stay emotionally healthy in a relationship.
“We’re talking about contraception, we’re talking about pronouns, we’re talking about what a healthy relationship looks like in the modern age where you can give up your life essentially with the passcode of your phone,” Jordan explained.
According to the Trevor Project, Only about half of schools in the United States provide LGBTQ+ inclusive sexual education. The “You + Me” program is offered as a series of hybrid events, where some students can attend in person and some can attend online. This opens it up to teens who live outside the region or who might have trouble getting there in person.
JoAnne presents her donation to Jordan. (Photo: Megan Murchie-Beyma)
“Unfortunately, we don’t expect that students will always be able to come,” he said. “A huge part of our population who seek out our services are not necessarily open or out to their families and friends. So in the circumstance where maybe they could get away or find some way to get to the program one week, they may not be able to necessarily do so the second week.”
The physical and emotional safety of the kids who come to Safe Space is one of the most important missions of the organization.
All the adult volunteers who work with kids are carefully vetted and run through background checks. All the youth who attend events have to sign up ahead of time, and they carefully select locations that can’t easily be accessed by strangers.
Creating and hosting events while keeping the participants safe isn’t easy, and Jordan says donations are key to making sure they have enough resources to run their programs.
JoAnne was joined by colleague Debra Cope, and together they donated $1,250.
“It’s a great place to put your money,” JoAnne said. “This place gives these kids the direction to be who they want and let them know it’s okay — it’s okay to be who you are.”
To JoAnne, Safe Space NOVA is a place where LGBTQ+ youth can hear the message that they are enough just the way they are.
“There’s nothing wrong with you,” she said. “You should be happy. Be happy in your own skin. Be happy in who you get up and want to be every day.”
To learn more about Safe Space NOVA visit safespacenova.org