Ridgefield Pride youth, family support groups offer camaraderie: 'They're not alone'

RIDGEFIELD — When Ellory Hankla began participating in the RidgefieldCTPride Youth Support Group, she said she felt an immediate connection with others in it.

"For me, it's a way to connect with other youth who went through the same experiences as me — other people who are figuring themselves out. It gives me a way to find people who I relate to," said Hankla, an 18-year-old Ridgefield resident. "The group provided a place where I could talk about my experiences coming out and navigating school as a queer person. It's a safe space where you are not judged and others understand what you're going through."

RidgefieldCTPride, a nonprofit organization that brings awareness to the LGBTQ+ community, offers two support groups — one for youth and another for families and friends.

Both groups, which are free to join and have no membership requirements, were founded in 2019 and meet monthly on Zoom, on separate days. The family group is a joint meeting with Waterbury PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).

Ridgefield resident Alisa Trachtenberg, one of the group' three facilitators, believe it's crucial those in the LGBTQ+ community have a solid support system. According to the Trevor Project's National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, LGBTQ youth who report having at least one accepting adult were 40 percent less likely to report a suicide attempt in the past year.

During each 90-minute youth group meeting, participants play games and offer support to one another.

Each session begins with question and answer games that serve as icebreakers — "different kinds of get-to-know-you questions to get people acquainted with each other," said Trachtenberg, whose 16-year-old daughter, Eva, transitioned at age 6. "We then go over some principles of support, and then we share our highs and lows."

While some participants seek advice about serious topics such as "coming out" to their friends and family, others just want a place to "shoot the breeze," Trachtenberg said.

Those in the youth group come from surrounding towns, as well as New York and other parts of the state. At each meeting, there are about three to 10 people who range from age 13 to 19.
 
"It depends on the time of year, different people cycle through," said Trachtenberg, who leads the group with Danbury resident Chris Priedemann and Middlebury resident Lynn Discenza.  

While most of the time the group meets online, they occasionally get together in person — such as at a local park and for ice cream.

One time over the summer, when many people tend to go away, Trachtenberg debated about canceling a session.
 
She decided to run it anyway — and was glad she made that decision.

"One person showed up and that person was desperate for help and spent half the meeting crying. She just didn't even know where to begin and what to do. It was all brand new for her," Trachtenberg said.  

 The Pride groups are not intended to replace a physician, however. None of the facilitators have a medical degree.

"Our group is not a substitute for a professional counselor. It is a place for people to make connections with others who are part of the LGBTQ+ community for the youth group or who have family/friends who are part of the LGBTQ+ community for the adult group," she said

Full circle

Mason Boilla of Brookfield has come full circle in the Pride youth group. He originally joined seeking advice and now he serves as a mentor, who gives advice. 

"I had just gone through a breakup and I needed some support," he said, recalling when he first joined the group. 

"I had just come out to my parents and my family in September of 2020 ... so when I joined the support group and I met all these people, it was definitely helpful," he said. 

He said the very first meeting went so well, he knew from that point on he would be returning.

"I met a friend (at my first meeting) and we've been friends for like over a year now, " said Boilla, who attends Naugatuck Valley Community College in Waterbury.  

He said one of his favorite activities in the group is Rainbows, Raindrops and Blooming Pedals.

"Raindrops can be something that's not so great that happens during the month. Rainbows are something that was great that happened. Blooming petals are something you're looking forward to," he said.

He said he has enjoyed learning about the experiences of the others.

"One of my mentors, me and him have a similar experience, as in we are on the very gay end of the bi spectrum. He shared some very insightful information about how he's grown up being mostly gay. I refer to being bi as halfway gay," he said, adding, it's very helpful having older LGBTQ+ people in the group, "to ask questions and to get insight from their experiences."

'Not alone'

Boilla said the "key" to any LGBTQ+ youth is that "they're not alone."

"That's really what they need to know," he said. "This group really embodies that."

Noalee Darragh of Ridgefield said she received a lot of help through the Pride family group.

She initially contacted the family group because she said she didn't have anyone to turn to for support in regard to what her daughter was going through.

"She was coming out socially as transgender to her friends," Darragh said. "I felt like I didn't really know anybody else that had transgender children. I just thought it would be helpful for me to talk about it with someone."

She said the group helped her realize "everybody is on their own journey" when it pertains to revealing one's gender identity — and all other topics related to the LGBTQ+ community..

"Whether you're gay lesbian, bisexual, etc., everyone's on their own journey. And just because somebody else might be coming out more openly sooner, that doesn't mean that it's wrong for my child to take her time," she said. 

Darragh said there's always more to learn from group members.

"There is a wealth of knowledge that some of the people have," she said. "At any point, you can still get support, because life changes."

For more information about the Pride youth and family support groups, contact supportgroup@ridgefieldctpride.com.