Waltham House looks like a typical family home, blending in with the other residences in its quiet neighborhood. But that sedate façade belies the unique and colorful activity inside. Waltham House, a program of the Home for Little Wanderers, is one of only three residential programs in the U.S. for lesbian, gay, transgendered and questioning teens. The home, which has a capacity of 12, serves youths aged 14-18 who are referred there by state agencies. While most residents are from Massachusetts, Waltham House also welcomes youths from other states.
It is ironic that a program that provides such a positive and caring environment for a particularly vulnerable population should have germinated on one of the most painful days in our lifetimes: September 11, 2001. The program’s initial meeting was scheduled for that day, and its founders decided to proceed in spite of the day’s harrowing events. Thirteen months later, Waltham House opened as the first group home of its kind in New England, and marked its tenth anniversary on October 7. Bay Windows talked to Program Supervisor Rebecca Reed and a resident named Dante to find out how this supportive environment works and what it aims to offer to troubled LGBTQ young people.
Bay Windows: Rebecca, what is your background before coming to Waltham House?
Reed: I moved here from California, where I had been working at a group home with at risk youth aged 12-16 years. I have been here 8 years and I started as Milieu (community) Supervisor. The Waltham House kids are so much fun! There’s always three kinds of music going on. You wouldn’t be surprised to walk in and see a drag show or karaoke. The majority of our kids are very artistic, whether it’s music or art. Many are into fashion and design their own clothing. We’ve had kids who have worked with the Regal Players before, and Waltham High School has a design class they can take for credit. They are often coming from bad places, and they finally get here and open up. I’ve seen a lot of kids develop into the people they wanted to become for years. It’s amazing.
Bay Windows: How do young people get admitted? Do they show up and they are received immediately, or is there a process to get in? Do you get referrals from schools, social service agencies or legal authorities?
Reed: We do have a referral process. The kids are usually in touch with a social worker at the Department of Children & Families or the Department of Mental Health. We interview everybody because some of the kids have negative behavior from being in negative environments. It’s the same with kids from out of state. We usually deal with the child welfare system. We’ve seen an increase in emergency referrals, and it’s just a couple of hours from referral to coming in. It’s usually because they were kicked out of where they were living.
Bay Windows: What kind of services and training do you provide? Do residents go to school or work?
Reed: We provide counseling and meds on site. We have a clinician on staff, one or two graduate clinical interns, CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) training, trauma informed care. All of our kids come with pretty lengthy trauma histories. We do group counseling, PYAA (Preparing Adolescents for Young Adulthood) which uses a series of books from Department of Children and Families that teaches budgeting money, getting and furnishing an apartment, everything they need to know to be a productive adult. Because we deal with older teens, a lot of them will go off to independent living in their own apartments. The goals are Independent living skills, dealing with past traumas and how that affects their lives today.
As far as school goes, it depends whether they have IEPs (Individual Education Plans). We’ve had a couple of kids who go to Arlington or Medford High School and we’ve been able to work it out so that they can stay at their schools for continuity. We act as a liaison just like a parent would. We attend school meetings, get on them about homework, speak with teachers and receive their report cards. We have only had one client who was done high school and I’ve been here eight years. He worked full-time.
Bay Windows: What about the kid from Iowa?
Reed: We have a girl who was sent by Iowa DPS. She was living in a shelter. She’ll be 17 in three weeks, and she has been here since March. She likes Massachusetts, she finds it more accepting. She’s had a lot of firsts; she saw the ocean for the first time. She has family therapy by phone once a week, and we Skype with her family. We try to make it as productive as it is for kids from close by.
Bay Windows: Tell us about the staff? Do you have volunteers?
Reed: A lot of our staff are LGBT and are open about it. A lot of the kids have never met an openly gay/lesbian/transgendered person before. The LGBT community is amazing and have been huge supporters. Some come in as mentors.
We have volunteers who come and cook dinner once a week or tutor. St. Cecilia’s Rainbow Ministry has come in and done things around special occasions such as holidays. We put on a big Thanksgiving dinner every year and St. Cecilia’s was instrumental in getting it off without a hitch, bringing food and cooking. Kids can invite family and friends.
Bay Windows: What is the living arrangement? How long do the residents stay there?
Reed: Right now we have six boys and four girls. We have 6 bedrooms, so they generally all have a roommate. We room everyone with everyone, based more on how they get along.
The average stay is 1 ½ to 2 1/2 years. If they are coming from a hospital, they might come here first (before independent living) because it’s not as structured an environment as a hospital. They can spend more time with family.
There is a range of family involvement. Right now we have the most family involvement in my eight years. All but two have family that is involved. Sometimes it’s extended family members like grandparents or aunts. They want to stay involved but don’t have means to take them in.
Bay Windows: What is the daily routine? What are the house rules?
Reed: The clients are all assigned chores and receive a weekly allowance for those that have been completed during the week. They can also earn extra money by helping staff with dinner. Community time is a privilege clients can earn by being respectful, meeting house expectations and displaying safe behaviors. Community time is time away from the house on their own or with friends. Just as with any teenager, they walk to where they want to go or take public transportation.
All privileges are individually based; we don’t have one set of expectation for all kids. At the beginning of each shift, the staff decides things like community time and curfew.
The kids get involved in planning and cooking the meals. Dante worked with a nutritionist to create a vegan meal plan. There are 3 vegans now. There are always a couple vegetarians or vegans. We haven’t always had a structured meal program for vegetarians, but we’ve always had that option. It’s their life and we try to allow them to have a choice and say in it.
Bay Windows: What is the process for leaving and what is the follow-up?
Reed: We talk about discharge during intake. We try to determine where they are going to go, whether its independent living or returning to family. Their entire time here is focused on achieving that goal and working toward it.
The Home has a formal follow-up system. When our kids leave, we tell them, “Make sure you call us next week.” If they are going to a different program or community, we try to connect them with an LGBT support group if there is one. They know our doors and phones are always welcome to them. We are fortunate a lot of them call and update us on how life is. One who was here in 2007 or 2008 called to say he was getting married.
Dante, a 19 year old from Hudson who is working and finishing high school, shared some thoughts on his 1 ½ years at Waltham House. “It’s a very accepting community, and it helped me get back on track with my life and helped me with my eating disorders, anorexia nervosa and bulimia. I also had a self-injury disorder. I’ve been sober from drugs for six months. They got me to this online drug class, and I got 39 out of 39. I ‘m not even the same person I was when I got here last year. I had court involvement and probation, and they helped with that. My goal is to be financially stable.”
Waltham House will celebrate its tenth anniversary with a Casino Night fundraiser in mid-January. Reed is excited about this year’s event, which she says will “draw more on Boston’s celebrity resources” than in past years. Stay tuned to Bay Windows and the South End News for details on joining this very special institution in marking ten years of service to troubled LGBT teens.