Old ambulance finds new purpose as mobile mental health clinic for LGBTQ+ youth in the Denver area

Written by Amanda Horvath and Alexis KequinAnd Rocky Mountain PBS

A new ambulance is now cruising around the Denver metro area, but it has no intention of transporting emergency patients.

Instead, the retired ambulance repurposed for other purposes will take care of people in a different way.

The ambulance has been converted into a mobile mental health clinic run by Joy as Resistance, a non-profit organization focused on LGBTQ+ youth through its mental health and wellness services. These services include partnering with schools and other nonprofit organizations, a counseling program and individual and group mental health sessions. This old ambulance is now going to host some of those sessions.

“The transfer was just a roadblock,” said Bree Donnelly, founder of Joy as Resistance. “Our first two pilots were before the pandemic, so virtual services weren’t as available as they are now… and so it was like, ‘We don’t want to see someone online and we can’t get on an hour bus at a time by myself When I’m 12, I can’t did that. So, what does that look like…really? “

At first, it looked like a school bus. It was divided into two rooms, one for each doctor with joy as resistance. But there were some complications and barriers with this idea, so Donnelly began looking for a smaller option.

“I was on auction sites for a very long time looking for something. Then this Arvada ambulance showed up on Craigslist,” Donnelly explained. So I was like, ‘Okay, this could be fun. “I got in, it was in really good shape; it hadn’t been driven or worn out since it was retired as an ambulance, so I was really excited to get that.”

With a grant from The Colorado Trust, a foundation for health equality, Donnelly was able to purchase a retired ambulance and convert it into a mobile mental health clinic.

“So the mobile clinic was kind of an option to remove the transportation barrier as much as possible,” Donnelly said. “Even if it’s in your neighborhood or at your school, unlike in downtown Denver and like the office. [The mobile clinic] It is more accessible for our youth. “

Donnelly has observed the need for these mental health services throughout her life, from the time she grew up in Colorado to working as a school social worker at Denver Public Schools.

“I was a gay guy in Colorado, so I’m from Colorado. And so mental health has been a huge part of my journey,” Donnelly explained. “So I know, for example, firsthand how weird it can be to isolate in a place where you don’t feel comfortable going out or opening up or even having anyone to deal with or any adult [with whom] You’re like, “Hey, you weird, what’s that?”

The importance of having an adult to look up and ask questions is something Donnelly addresses in two different ways with her organization. Joy as Resistance also has a mentoring program called Big Queer, Little Queer. It combines adults and children seeking guidance with a program that is monitored by the organization.

While Donnelly tried to find different solutions to the problems she was seeing, she worked with community partners as well as teachers and schools to fill gaps in care.

“I know that the mental health professionals at school are so tired and exhausted, that being the only person for 300 to 500 students is impossible,” Donnelly said.

A station to create conscience pins at the launch event of the Mobile Mental Health Clinic. (Rocky Mountain Public Media)

Caring for children has recently become more and more difficult. The pandemic has kept people separate and often puts more stress on their mental health. The Trevor Project 2021 National Survey on the Mental Health of LGBTQ Youth highlights the need for mental health support, especially now. They surveyed nearly 35,000 LGBTQ+ youth between the ages of 13 and 24 across the United States.

The survey found that 42 percent of LGBTQ+ youth have seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and non-binary youth. Rates also varied based on how youth was identified within the group. For example, 31 percent of Indigenous/Indigenous youth, 21 percent of black youth, 21 percent of multiracial youth have attempted suicide compared to 18 percent of Latinos, 12 percent of Asian/Pacific Islanders, 12 percent of white youth. It also found that more than 80 percent of those surveyed said COVID-19 had made their living situation more stressful.

“The pandemic has happened, which has made it 10 times worse,” Donnelly said. “After that, people really started to see mental health as essential not just for learning, but for just living your daily life, especially with the things our young people are facing now.”

Although the past year and a half has been particularly difficult, Donnelly has seen so much happiness and strength that is worth celebrating.

“Society has a lot of resilience and amazing courage and courage and joy as well,” Donnelly said. “And so we also wanted to highlight those stories and really highlight the resilience of this community, the joy, the celebration of this community, along with the things that we also experience as a community.”

Part of that celebration took place on Sunday, November 14, when Joy as Resistance held the official launch event for a mobile mental health clinic in Central Park in Denver. Inside the pavilion, about 30 people crowded into the room to listen to Donnelly and another part of the organization. Holding back his tears, Donnelly spoke of the long period ahead for this launch.

Donnelly told the audience as she explained her mission when starting Joy as Resistance.

The launch event featured food and places to buy a Joy as Resistance swag, as well as stations to create pronoun staples and artwork for inside the mobile clinic and give name ideas for her as well. Some of the performances included “Joy Journey”, “911 Brings Joy” and “Moving Joy”.

A few days before the launch event, the Joy as Resistance team gathered to decorate the ambulance’s interior and transform it from a clinic into a safe place for children. They added pillows, blankets, artwork, and Donnelly’s favorite piece: a disco ball.

“So really recreating this space and restoring it for comfort, warmth and healing was really important to me. So there’s a lot of detail that you’ll see as we decorate it that really came with that intent in mind and knowing there’s a lot to unpack with ambulances, Donnelly said.

The future foundation for this mobile clinic has not yet been laid. For now, Donnelly and the other doctor will use it with their existing clients to meet with them wherever they are. In the future, the clinic may stop in different parts of the city on certain days or partner schools or organizations to be nearby on certain days, whatever it is the local community says it needs.

“If you have something like this they can pull out — you don’t need to use the space at school. You don’t need to understand all these issues logistically or operationally. We can just pull this off. They can come and go back to school, and that’s done,” Donnelly said.

Clinic sessions have an associated cost, and Donnelly says they work on a graduated scale with each individual to find something that works. Most importantly, Donnelly wants young people to know that someone is listening to them.

“I think the issues facing this community are as multifaceted as the people themselves. And so it’s important to highlight everyone’s experience with it,” Donnelly explained. “I think there are stifling things about the way we treat LGBT youth. It can be very dismissive and belittling. And that’s something I see a lot, especially from adults to young adults from just this, like, ‘Oh, you don’t know yet, it’s a phase.'” …that’s not what it’s going to look like.” And that raises a lot of suspicion in the young people we serve. And so one of the things I work on the most with people is their confidence to show up. [as] Who are and are able to say, “No, these are my limits; these are my needs. And it is okay that I have these limits and needs. And you will also respect these limits and needs.”


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