Giving Back: Karen Foley

Karen Foley is making a difference through the newly formed LGBTQ+Coalition. Catch the full interview with Karen and Sam Interrante.

Karen’s photoshoot at Hingework was our first introduction. We shook hands and immediately I felt at ease. She has a disarming charisma about her. I asked about her life as I began photographing her, but she was more interested in the initiatives of the LGBTQ+ Coalition than in herself. She’s got that underdog spirit; someone that you want in your corner.

A Chicago native, Karen moved to Lancaster a decade ago and immediately got to work. “You can’t be from Chicago and not grind all the time,” she said as she merely laughed, describing the frenzied nature of her day-to-day. In college, it was hard to find a program that will focus on both psychology and the body so I kind of was able to go to a school in Chicago that let me self-lead. I created my own course; the subjects I took, the classes I took, the books I read.” Karen isn’t only a pioneering advocate for the LGBTQ community, she’s also a therapist, trained yoga instructor, and does massage and healing work with trauma in the body.

Karen’s love and empathy for marginalized people to know that they have room in this world quickly made itself apparent to me. It showed itself not only in her passion and the many testimonials she shared, but in the strategic power of the Coalition’s efforts, who are training and working with local hospitals, public schools and youth, retirement communities, and crisis shelters. Simply put, “every issue is an LGBTQ issue.”

Continue reading for the full interview with Karen and Sam Interrante.

Photo from the LGBTQ+ Coalition Launch Party at Tellus 360

Q: So we’re talking about the coalition. Tell me about the coalition.

A: We have been working on this for about a year. We are just now slowly opening and rolling out our programming.  We launched on November 12th at Tellus 360. This is perfect timing as this is National  Coming Out Day. We are the LGBTQ+ Coalition. Basically, we created this because as a therapist in the community I had nowhere to send my clients at all. There was nowhere for them to connect. So many people weren’t getting better because they were lonely and isolated. So, I said, “let’s create a center where we can solve some of those problems.”

The LGBTQ+ Coalition's base of operations in Lancaster. 

Q: Do you have a physical location?

A: We’re at The Candy Factory Studios. We have our administrative office there, but we do events all over.

Q: Tell me more.

A: We are working on three main initiatives for the first year. We are doing a community needs assessment because there is no research on the LGBTQ+ community in Lancaster County. We know enough, but there’s no hard research. Working on our youth programming because that’s one of our more vulnerable subsets of our population so we have a weekly youth program every Saturday and working with the GSA (gay-straight alliance) in schools, and working with the leadership pipeline through all of the schools in Lancaster County. On issues like homelessness—there are no affirming crisis shelters, nowhere to send teens, so we are working closely with other community partnerships to make that happen. There is also the aging population, 40% of them are more likely to be lonely and isolated so we’re working with all of the hospitals in the area to make sure that there’s affirming and dignified healthcare and then the same for home health for our elders. Most people that go to doctors unless they’re vetted, they are educating the doctors on their lifestyle, if they’re transgender and they’re on hormone replacement therapy they’re basically telling the doctors this is the research I’ve done and this is what you should give me.  I think that we can do better.

I grew up in Chicago, and came here about 10 years ago, started my practice, and just very quickly I became very busy. Like a lot of people are surprised—there are a lot more transgender people in Lancaster county than one would think.

Basically I started working right away, and a lot of my work is with trauma and the body. I’m also a yoga teacher and I teach trans-queer yoga, and we’re going on 3.5 years now because there was just no way for my clients to feel comfortable getting into health practices because it’s hard to go into a studio and be like “Hi, I’m trans” and people are looking at you in a community gathering.

So, then I got out of theatre and started studying energy work, massage, shamanism, that kind of stuff. I did that for a while I was doing massage and yoga of course and that’s where I said “aha” I see stuff being released from the body. And I just realized “That’s it.” It’s hard to find a program that will focus on both psychology and the body so I was able to go to a school in Chicago that sort of let me self lead, I kind of created my own course, the subjects I took, the classes I took, the books I read.

Q: How do your friends describe you?

A: I’m funny, I’m intense. But I’m also a therapist, and I’m super loving, passionate. I get, I’m a hard worker. I’m from Chicago so I have a midwestern work ethic. You can’t be in Chicago and not grind like all the time. So, I feel like that’s a blessing and a curse.

I love all the stories from the kids. The kids are having a national coming out day prom at the coalition and some of these kids have never been to prom. These are the things that keep me going.

This is perfect timing for us because we’re brand new and in terms of getting support from our community and having publicity around our launch near the Extraordinary Give. We do have a lot of support from the community, but right now it’s like in order for us to sustain we have to show people that we are what people need to be giving their money to. I feel like what’s important to know about the coalition is that there isn’t anywhere within 45 minutes for anyone in the LGBTQ community to connect. There is very little access to dignified healthcare and competent healthcare. So we are going to train the doctors around LGH. We’re working with Lancaster Health Center, and also connecting people to Medicaid so that they can go to the doctor because so many people can’t go to the doctor. It’s like there’s nowhere to connect where you don’t have normal social services because they are discriminating against you.

People say they’re affirming but they don’t always show up. There’s still veiled discrimination. There’s still blatant discrimination. We don’t have statewide non-discrimination legislation in PA yet. Part of what we’re doing is working with our legislators to make sure that this happens. That’s why you need a center. You need people that are advocates, so we came together as a coalition, as professionals. There’s me, a couple of city council people, there’s a high school teacher, all of us have been activists in the community in our own way. We came together and we joined forces so we can be stronger together.

One of the big things is that there is no affirming crisis shelter. I feel like for the most part housing issues are a big deal because people are still discriminated against, even though we have protections in Lancaster city. I know, I see my clients not getting jobs and not getting things because their birth certificate doesn’t match their chosen name, or because they look different. So right now our core issues are healthcare, housing, and our youth and aging population. Every issue is an LGBTQ issue.

Story Portrait by Sam Interrante | @sam_interrante

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