Inside Waltham House — Helping Trans Teens Validate Their Experience

by Steve Duffy

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday August 16, 2022

Inside Waltham House — Helping Trans Teens Validate Their Experience
  (Source:Getty Images)

Located in the Boston suburb that shares its name, Waltham House is the first residential group home in New England designed specifically for LGBTQ+ youth. It was among the†first of its kind in the nation when it opened in 2002. According to its website, "its founding principles are that every child deserves to live in an environment in which they feel safe, respected, supported and cared for by those around them." The large, Federalist-style residence offers a safe and supportive living environment with 24-hour staffing for up to 12 gay, lesbian, bisexual, and/or transgender youth ages 14-18.

Primary in their goals is offering a safe, supportive environment for trans teens, offering programs, such as the Confidence Crew, a therapy group aimed at trans individuals 8-12 years of age; and Out at Home, which provides provides individuals, families, and couples group therapy.

Waltham House
Waltham House  

Overseeing Waltham House is program director Rebecca Smith, who earned her bachelor's degree in psychology from Drew University. She has managed residential care programs for child welfare-involved youth for over 9 years and is passionate about supporting the needs of LGBTQ+ youth and families. Becky's work also includes four years of experience as an ongoing social worker for the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families. She conducts training on working with LGBTQ+ youth both internally at the Home as well as to providers throughout the state.

EDGE spoke to Smith about the Waltham House's commitment to offering support of trans youth and to further a better understanding of trans youth in the community.

EDGE: Tell us about the Confidence Crew?

Rebecca Smith: The Confidence Crew is a therapy group for eight- to 12-year-old trans and non-binary children. The goal of the group is to help the kids build social skills by playing games and doing activities in a structured way that allows for fun and relationship building. We want these kids to be around kids who are reflection of themselves.

EDGE: What other services or resources does Out at Home provide?†

Rebecca Smith: Out at Home provides individuals, families and couples group therapy. We can do that in a variety of ways. Our individual, group, and couples counseling can take place in a hybrid format either remotely or in person depending on the client's preference and location.

EDGE: What are some things not to say to someone struggling with their identity?

Rebecca Smith: The most important thing is to not try and talk them out of it or to invalidate their experience. For instance, if you know a person was born a female and is now coming out as transgender, and they want to be called Tom, and they want to change their clothing, change their hairstyles — don't say things like, "You're so pretty as a girl" or "wouldn't it be so sad if you cut your hair." Statements like that can really invalidate the person's experience.

The other thing to hold is that we are the expert on ourselves. So, if someone is telling you that their gender makes them feel immense distress in their body then listen. That person is the expert on that, and they deserve validation, and they deserve to be listened to and they deserve to be respected in what they are asking of others. It's truly no different than someone named Rebecca asking people to call them Becky, because that is what they prefer. We should always try to extend that same respect to other human beings.

EDGE: Where does the state of Massachusetts stands when it comes to protecting the rights of these kids?

Rebecca Smith: We're fortunate in many ways to live in Massachusetts and have access to organizations like Boston Children's Hospital and Boston Medical Center. They both have gender clinics that have amazing and competent providers. I do wish that western Massachusetts and Worcester had similar services. I think that we're lucky that these services just exist in Massachusetts, but there's always room for improvement.

EDGE: What advice can you offer to a parent who might still be struggling to understand and support their trans or gender-diverse child?

Rebecca Smith: Because we live in a technological society, there is a Facebook group for everything. There are plenty of ways to get support online and lots of books to help them understand what it means to be trans and what it means to feel these things in your body. Most importantly, is to just make sure that we're listening to our children and if they don't want to wear boys' clothes anymore then that's okay.

EDGE: With school right around the corner, does the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education play any part in helping/protecting?

Rebecca Smith: I'm not too familiar on their policies. We don't have education services embedded into our services, so my experience with the school system is very third-hand. I've worked with some incredible people when the schools aren't being supportive or using correct pronouns or offering an accessible bathroom to a youth. I think that there's still a learning curve for many folks. I do think overwhelmingly the experience has been supportive and especially in Massachusetts, we want trans and queer kids to become trans and queer adults.

EDGE: How can members of the LGBTQ community help young non-binary, trans, and non-conforming kids?

Rebecca Smith: That's a great question. Just recognizing that they exist and seeing them I think is so important. Out at Home we really work hard for that representation piece. Everyone on the Out at Home team identifies as part of the LGBTQ community. That representation piece is really important for us as an organization and for the kids. We are always looking for queer adults to come in who have a job, a hobby, or a special interest that can just share these experiences or share some information with the kids. We want them to see that they have a future but letting them know that they have a place in the world, and they have a place in the future.

EDGE: The representation of trans people in Hollywood is great for visibly, but does it help or hurts kids?

Rebecca Smith: I think it helps. I think that there is more that they can continue to say and do. There are downfalls to anything, including in the media, but I think that visibility is crucial. There are folks in media who are using their voice. Demi Lovato and Elliot Page come to mind. They both have been catching some heat for their stance. Unfortunately, we will continue to see hate. That is why it is important for these kids to have role models, even famous ones. It is far more important for kids to see people that reflect them. I think that people going through transitions and changing their pronouns on a public forum are really brave and that's it's inspiring to kids.

EDGE: Are there any specific needs that the Waltham House has that members of the LGBTQ community could do to help?

Rebecca Smith: Great question! We're always open to help. I will say that we have an amazing community of local LGBTQ folks and corporations who love to volunteer with us and we're really grateful for it. We are always looking for donations: clothing and activity supplies. Items that will keep the kids busy and engaged.

About The Home for Little Wanderers
For over 200 years, The Home for Little Wanderers has helped build stable lives and hopeful tomorrows for vulnerable children and their families. Our 25+ community-based and residential programs serve thousands of at-risk youth from birth to age 26 in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York. Many of these children have experienced abuse, neglect, trauma or a disrupted family life. As the oldest child welfare agency in America, we provide them with safe surroundings, permanent loving relationships and a secure path toward a better, brighter future. For more information, .