The Welcome Project PA was born out of necessity.
Founded in 2020, The Welcome Project PA began as a small endeavor to offer resources and support for LGBTQ+ people and other marginalized communities in Bucks and Montgomery counties. But the Hatboro-based nonprofit quickly expanded their services to the greater Philadelphia area and beyond within the span of a year.
“We started to realize that there was a lot more need, even out of state,” Josh Blakesley, the co-founder and executive director of The Welcome Project PA, told the Bucks County Beacon. When everything started becoming remote during the height of the pandemic, Blakesley saw an opportunity to reach more people struggling to find acceptance and community who live outside the area or are unable to show up to in-person events.
The Welcome Project PA’s largest program, Sexuality and Gender Acceptance, or SAGA, hosts support groups, activity nights, community events, and the annual Bucks-Mont PRIDE Festival, aiming to provide a “safe and brave space” for LGBTQ+ people and allies. According to Blakesley, SAGA offers a variety of adult support groups, which he describes as “very specific.”
“Each support group is co-facilitated by a professional social worker or therapist, who is trained and competent in LGBT+ care or is LGBT+ identifying,” he said. Some of the adult groups include a nonbinary support group, an HRT/transitioning support group, a QTBIPOC support group, and a sexuality support group, all of which meet on a monthly basis.
SAGA will also soon be launching a youth program, which will give LGBTQ+ teens a place where they can discuss their feelings and “develop resiliency, develop life skills, and also receive the support that they need,” Blakesley says. Under that program, there will be another group for parents of LGBTQ+ children to ask questions and learn about how they can best support their child.
In addition to support groups, SAGA hosts activity nights twice a month, one in Hatboro and one in Souderton at Zwingli United Church of Christ. These are very casual, family-friendly events that include a range of games and activities for people of all ages to partake in.
“The main goal was to create community spaces, like third spaces, where people can literally just come together, play games, talk, get to know each other, eat a little bit, hang out,” Blakesley said. “There’s no set program.” For people who are more bookish or are maybe not comfortable interacting in larger group settings, there’s also a queer library, where people can come read or check out books and interact one-on-one.
He notes that both SAGA and its corresponding activity nights actually predate the organization’s 501(c)(3) incorporation, originating as a meetup of LGBTQ+ parishioners at Love In Action United Church of Christ in 2017. “It kind of just started out as a very small community-based group,” Blakesley, the pastor of Love In Action UCC, said.
“Over time, and obviously with the political landscape and just a need in that part of Montgomery County, the group continued to grow.” Now, the group has expanded well beyond just SAGA, offering interfaith gatherings, DEI training, legal services for immigrants, and low-cost mental health services.
The Welcome Project PA’s mental health program is relatively new and focuses on providing affordable, LGBTQ+ affirming therapy for families and individuals of all ages.
“We realized that a lot of people in the community don’t get therapy because they just can’t afford it,” he said. While the website gives an estimate of $45 to $65 per therapy session, Blakesley noted that “it’s really pay as you can.”
“We rely on grant money from the county, state, and federal government, and also foundations and donations from people who support this program,” he continued. “To this point, we’ve been able to serve hundreds of people.”
Blakesley also says that the nonprofit’s interfaith cooperation is intersectional and LGBTQ+ affirming, welcoming people of all faith backgrounds or no faith backgrounds. “We’re trying to change the narrative that people who are LGBT+ identifying are not people of faith, that basically it’s kind of either/or,” he said, adding that most LGBTQ+ people are spiritual or have some kind of faith, but some may have been rejected by their place of worship because of who they are.
“They didn’t leave their tradition because they don’t want to have a tradition,” said. “They were forced out.”
Of course, not being religious does not exclude people from participating in The Welcome Project PA’s spiritual circles, mindfulness groups, or facilitated interfaith discussions. The goal of the interfaith cooperation is for people of different backgrounds to listen and learn from each other, build a sense of community, and create a space where intersecting identities are embraced.
According to Blakesley, The Welcome Project PA is always looking for volunteers for their clothing drives and queer clothing swaps, as well as for the Bucks-Mont Pride Festival, and encourages “passionate people who are into the work that we do” to join the board of directors. The nonprofit also welcomes donations, no matter how small, especially from those who have been served by The Welcome Project PA’s programs.
“We definitely want to be represented by the people we serve,” he said.