SPRINGFIELD — While many students look forward to summer vacation, it can come with its own set of challenges. Outside of school clubs and the friends they make in school, LGBTQIA+ youth may struggle to find social support that is inclusive. To address this, the Springfield Pride Parade Organization has created the Safe Spaces Summer Program.

Springfield Pride Parade Organization CEO and founder Taurean Bethea explained, “Safe spaces are places where the youth we serve can come and feel welcome — an inclusive space where everyone is supported.”

The Safe Space Summer Program and its sister program, the Safe Space After School Program, were borne out of the Springfield Pride Parade Organization’s stated mission to “provide support, inclusivity, and public recognition for our LGBTQIA+ youth, ensuring they know they are safe, loved, and never alone.”

Despite the name of the organization, Bethea said, “The parade is the celebration, not the work. The summer program and the fall program are our work.” He added, “I can see [students] missing some of the resources they have throughout the year. We’re here to sort of be that North Star and provide some of the support they’d have through school.”

The summer program is open to youth in grades 9-12, with a maximum of 20 students in the program. There is no cost to the participants, as the program is paid for through a $100,000 grant from Baystate Health and funding from the state Department of Public Health.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays from July 16 to Aug. 22, from 1-6 p.m., young people gather at Springfield College in rooms 231 and 232. “We do want people to participate in all six weeks,” Bethea said, “but if it is a drop-in opportunity, where if you just want something to do, you’re welcome.”

The young people participate in a curriculum that is modeled after the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s standards on social-emotional learning, with a focus on being a safe and inclusive space. Parade planning is an activity throughout the session. “We’ve always wanted the parade to be something young people can take ownership of,” Bethea explained.

They also eat dinner in the dining hall. Bethea said this aspect is important because, he said, “Food insecurity is a real challenge in Springfield.” While students may receive free lunch on weekdays during the school year, summer vacation leaves some young people without enough access to nutritious meals.

Summer is not the only time students need a safe space. During the school year, the Springfield Pride Parade Organization offers a 28-week Safe Space After School Program for students in grades 6 through 12. Like the summer program, the organization’s website describes the afterschool program as “a haven for LGBTQIA+ youth” and is hosted at Duggan Academy, VanSickle Academy and John F. Kennedy Middle School.

“Some obstacles we dealt with included parent reservations,” Bethea said. Looking to the future, he said the organization is interested in developing a program to help answer some of the questions parents of LGBTQIA+ youth have and offer a space to discuss those challenges.

The organization launched in 2021, with a campaign to seek commitments from Springfield businesses to act as safe spaces. With the pledge, businesses “vow to not allow any form of hate and/or discrimination within your establishment and also welcome all people, regardless of their race, gender, identity or preference.” More than 26 businesses have committed so far. Each sports a decal in their window letting all members of the community know they are welcome.

For more information about the Safe Space programs, email visit springfieldprideparade.org.