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'I don’t think there’s another service like it' | St. Louis organization offers peer support through LGBTQIA+ helpline

"I think SQSH fills a unique niche that it’s the only teleservice in the area focused on LGBTQIA+ community."

ST. LOUIS — A lack of resources in the community launched an organization in our area to help the LGBTQIA+ community.

Cofounder Luka Cai decided to empower others, so they don't feel alone either.

That's how the St. Louis Queer+ Support Helpline, also known as SQSH, came to life.

"I was closeted in Singapore and I found the home environment was very homophobic. As a young trans immigrant who moved to St. Louis, I never thought I’d make an impact," Cai said.

In St. Louis, Cai got 100 hours of training for another sexual assault hotline. When helping others, they also got support by the queer and trans community.

Putting those two together, it helped guide the organization. 

"I think SQSH fills a unique niche that it’s the only teleservice in the area focused on LGBTQIA+ community. We built a 50-hour training curriculum and we recruited 14 trainees to start and launched a helpline on Sept. 20, 2019," Cai explained.

On the very first day, a call came in, showing the need in the community.

Anyone can call without any referrals or appointments.

Jet McDonald works as an interim external organizational facilitator and as one of the many people on the helpline. 

They explain that they are trained to have active listening skills along with empowerment skills, while offering emotional support.

"If a call comes in, I will answer with an intake process and see how best I can help them. I think it’s vital, I don’t think there’s another service like it," they added.

The calls coming in are split between emotional support and resource referrals.

The top resource referral is housing.

Cleo Starpattern is the internal organizational facilitator and handles a good chunk of the trainings.

"A lot of queer are housing insecure, a lot of youth are kicked out of their homes," they said.

The second most common request is for mental health support. We're told not many therapists are queer affirming, which is crucial in a space where you want to feel safe.

"Queer folks won’t have to identify themselves, their identity, they can feel comfortable and entering a space where they are understood," Starpattern added.

SQSH also has a SQSH book that has a data spreadsheet of 1,000 resources in the St. Louis area.

Starpattern also said what makes this organization unique is being able to guide the caller to local resources, which can be difficult when calling a national hotline. 

Sam Bernstein called the local line. Nervous at first, he felt more secure afterwards.

"The biggest thing for me was having someone that I didn’t have to explain what everything meant," he said. 

Now, he wants to to encourage others.

"We are a helpline, not a crisis line, so if you need emotional support and you’re not in a crisis, it’s okay to call," he said. 

He's been so impacted, that he's now an intern. He currently helps with fundraising and hopes to launch a monthly donor program later this year to have a sustainable donation income.

Cai also told 5 On Your Side the organization is launching an immigrant queer project.

Right now, it's looking for volunteers to assist the immigrant and refugee community. More multi-lingual volunteers are needed.

To expand and reach even more, support is essential.

The pandemic has increased calls, but decreased funds. 

"The number one thing is donations to increase our volunteers' capacity, we ask a lot of our volunteers," Starpattern explained. 

Funds would go towards the staff's salary, the volunteer support fund, equipment for the office, rent and monthly phone bills.

Almost 100% of the funds go to the funding programs and very little goes to overhead.

Volunteers such as grant writers, designers, fundraisers, book keepers and data entry volunteers are needed.

It's a way to continue making an impact.

As for the future, Cai hopes in 10 years, the organization can strengthen and grow. They hope it can run all hours of the week and even have a text and chat line. 

The goal is to branch out and even have the SQSH database public, so others can also learn to help.

For assistance, the helpline is available Friday thru Monday from 1-7 p.m. at 314-380-7774 or toll-free at 844-785-7774.

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