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We Are Family provides a safe space and mental health programs to LGBTQ+ youth

We Are Family provides a safe space and mental health programs to LGBTQ+ youth
June 2024

The nonprofit celebrates Pride Month by hosting the Adult Queer Prom and other events in Park Circle

This month, We are Family hosts the Queer Adult Prom during Park; (inset) Domenico Ruggerio has been the nonprofit’s executive director since 2021.

This spring, Thomas Engel Hart, son of We Are Family (WAF) founder Tom Myers, dropped into the Closet Case thrift store to donate clothing. “Thomas is royalty here,” laughs the nonprofit’s executive director, Domenico Ruggerio. The encounter highlights the multigenerational impact that We Are Family has made since its 1995 inception. As the father of a gay teen, Myers saw a need for LGBTQ+ youth to find community and belonging, so he gathered volunteers to distribute pamphlets spreading messages of acceptance and understanding. Three decades later, that need still holds. And what began as a small show of support has since grown into the oldest LGBTQ+ youth organization in the state.

“We provide lifesaving and life-affirming programs for young people,” explains Ruggerio of the group’s two-part mission. “Meeting a participant’s basic needs through health and mental wellness programs is our highest priority and the most resource-intensive.” An early safety net, the Trans Love Fund assists with rent, utility bills, and other emergency funding for trans community members unable to find safe shelter or work. “With this micro-grant program, we’re able to act fast,” says the director. Last year, WAF distributed 54 grants statewide totaling $13,500. 

Mental health support is also in the lineup of crucial services. WAF contracts with more than 20 affirming therapists to provide one-on-one counseling at no cost to participants. The nonprofit also facilitates an art therapy program with the Medical University of South Carolina’s Arts in Healing department and a therapeutic playgroup for kids under 10 and their parents with the Lowcountry Children’s Museum.

The need for mental health services is underscored by the number of LGBTQ+ youth who experience depression or consider suicide. According to The Trevor Project’s 2022 survey, 50 percent of LGBTQ+ youth in South Carolina seriously considered attempting suicide; and 59 percent said they wanted counseling but were unable to receive it. 

(Left to right) We are Family hosts Queer Youth Fest; The Closet Case thrift store offers a gender-inclusive shopping experience to raise money for We are Family; Luxx Noir London from Season 15 of RuPaul’s Drag Race will headline this year’s Queer Adult Prom.

As part of the life-affirming side of the mission, youth leadership and support groups establish safe social spaces for middle and high school students, young adults, queer and trans people of color, and parents and guardians of LGBTQ+ children. “Our youth are creative, resilient, and silly. They have so much love and joy. We spend lots of time letting them know they can be their authentic selves,” reflects Ruggerio. “In my first year here, I came out as gender nonconforming. I will always be grateful to our youth for giving me the strength to live my own truth.” 

To serve members of the trans and gender nonconforming community (who make up about a third of its clientele), WAF accepts requests for gender-affirming products, such as chest binders and tuck kits, discreetly mailing them anywhere in the state. These items, which help lessen feelings of gender dysphoria, can also be found at Closet Case, a thrift store that raises thousands of dollars each year for WAF while also offering a gender-inclusive shopping experience.

In September, the nonprofit’s five-year lease on the Reynolds Avenue storefront expires, but Ruggerio envisions a larger LGBTQ+ community center alongside a bustling thrift store in a more visible location. “We also plan to scale some of our mental health programs statewide,” says the executive director, who has overseen fundraising of nearly $1.4 million in the past two years using some creative avenues. 

“We don’t host the typical nonprofit gala,” Ruggerio notes. On June 8, the social justice educator plans to forgo the penguin suit for a flying monkey costume during the annual Queer Adult Prom, which boasts an “Oz-mosis” theme. (The group hosted a similar prom for 250 middle and high school students in April.) “We want to encourage all those who wish to support LGBTQ+ youth to join us,” stresses Ruggerio. “We’re in a challenging social climate, particularly here in the South, and we need to rise to meet this moment.”

Learn more about We Are Family and purchase tickets to the Queer Adult Prom at