Queer LifeSpace announces leadership change

  • by Heather Cassell
  • Wednesday April 12, 2017
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Queer LifeSpace Executive Director Sarah Soul
Queer LifeSpace Executive Director Sarah Soul

There's been a leadership change at Queer LifeSpace, a nonprofit counseling agency in the Castro.

Nancy Heilner, the co-founding executive director, has moved back to New Orleans, the agency announced in its March newsletter.

The mental health organization's new leader is Sarah Soul.

Heilner relocated to the Big Easy, where she lived before moving to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2001, to return to private practice alongside a group of lesbian therapists, she told the Bay Area Reporter.

Soul, 40, who identifies as queer, was mentored by Heilner, and also worked alongside her for six weeks before her departure. Soul, who has been a therapist for 10 years, took the reins March 1. Heilner will continue advising from Louisiana, she said.

Heilner called Queer LifeSpace the "highlight of my career," and said that the decision was difficult.

"The thought of leaving Queer LifeSpace and my colleagues was extremely difficult to consider. But I know Queer LifeSpace is in a good place," said Heilner.

She noted that the organization has developed a reputation for providing quality mental health care and an "excellent" training program for future therapists.

"I know that won't change," she said.


Legacy of good mental health

Heilner, 61, founded the LGBT mental health care organization in 2011 with three of her colleagues: Chris Holleran, Stacey Rodgers, and Joe Voors. All were mental health and substance abuse therapists at New Leaf: Services for Our Community, a mental health organization that folded in 2010.

After New Leaf closed, the therapists first responded to the void of LGBT mental health services by opening the San Francisco Therapy Collective, a for-profit counseling service that works with LGBT individuals and couples.

It's a group private practice that works with individual and couples on many mental health issues.

However, SFTC didn't resolve the dearth of mental health services for low-income clients. Other agencies, such as UCSF's Alliance Health Project and Lyon-Martin Health Services absorbed some of these services while LGBT seniors organization Openhouse took up the services for older LGBTs.

The therapists with SFTC started Queer LifeSpace next door. It started with $25,000 in seed money provided by the collective and an estimated $20,000 in in-kind donations, with a goal to provide individual, group, and couples counseling as well as integrated mental health and substance abuse services, Heilner told the B.A.R. at the time.

The organization's current annual operating budget is $208,000, according to Heilner and Soul. Soul's salary for the executive director position is $12,000 annually, which is $1,000 less than Heilner, according to the nonprofit's 2014 Form 990.

The proximity made it easier for Heilner, Holleran, Rodgers, and Voors to juggle operating both businesses.

It was a schedule Heilner maintained for six years. During that period QLS started with serving about 200 clients and launched programs â€" including a therapist training program, she told the B.A.R. at the time. During the past half dozen years QLS has served approximately 800 clients, according to Soul. Heilner also headed up QLS and the therapy collective's relocation from its original space, which the San Francisco AIDS Foundation claimed for its Strut men's health center, to its current location at 2275 Market Street after a bitter battle with SFAF.

It was very important to Heilner and her team at Queer LifeSpace that it stay in the "gayborhood."

"I believe that having a sense of community, a place that feels safe, a connection to others that share one's struggles will be more important than ever with the increasing intolerance that the current administration has encouraged," said Heilner, who also guided the launch of a number of programs.

Currently, Queer LifeSpace sees approximately 150 clients weekly and supports an estimated 16 counselors, Heilner said. She hopes the organization will continue to provide quality services and increase the programs to meet the community's needs.

Heilner believes Soul, who was one of Queer LifeSpace's first interns, will take the organization into an exciting future.

"I was lucky enough to be her clinical supervisor and had the honor of watching her grow into an amazing clinician and advocate for our community," Heilner said.

Soul never really left Queer LifeSpace. After her internship wrapped up, she continued to remain connected to the organization leading trainings, supervising students, and participating in community events and working part-time at SFTC as she developed her counseling skills, said Heilner and Soul.

"She is as passionate about this work as we are â€" and for that I am truly grateful," said Heilner.


New chapter

Soul was a public school teacher for more than a decade before transitioning into a career as a therapist, specializing in treating eating disorders, queer couples, families, and individuals for six years. She's also worked with transgender clients, said Heilner and Soul.

Additionally, Soul shares ownership of her family's farm in the Central San Joaquin Valley, she said.

Soul is passionate about Queer LifeSpace's mission and vision.

"I have poured my heart and soul into QLS and watched it be built from the ground up. I want to see it expand and grow, especially during these turbulent political times," said Soul. "Our community is facing unprecedented vitriol and hate. It is my goal to grow and expand QLS to provide a safe space to heal from the daily micro and macro aggressions we face."

To proactively tackle the current challenging environment, Soul plans to be out and about in the community, building coalitions and partnerships and raising the money needed to provide programs to meet the community's needs, she said.

One program Soul is excited about launching is the client coalition/committee, she said, explaining that it will help raise visibility and share stories of recovery and hope.

"By having a client coalition of people who have received services with us, I hope to further destigmatize mental health care in our community and give people hope," she said.


To schedule an appointment at Queer LifeSpace, call the intake line at (415) 358-2000, ext. 302. For more information, visit http://www.queerlifespace.com or http://www.sftherapycollective.org.