FreeState Legal Project has started an LGBT anti-bullying outreach program in schools
FreeState Legal Project has started an LGBT anti-bullying outreach program in schools
Diversity & Inclusion
January 23, 2015

Grant leads to anti-bullying program for LGBT youths in Maryland

A $10,000 Wells Fargo grant to FreeState Legal Project helped start an LGBT anti-bullying outreach program in schools.

Wells Fargo team member Beth Wexler feels fortunate: She was raised in a family who always accepted her as being a lesbian. But she knows others aren’t as lucky.

So when her Wholesale Banking team asked for suggestions of nonprofits to receive a $10,000 grant, she nominated FreeState Legal Project, which provides free legal services to the low-income LGBT community in Maryland.

“I’ve been volunteering with the FreeState Legal Project for a few years and know a lot of attorneys who have done pro bono work for them,” she says. “They’re very focused on helping an underserved population that is often discriminated against.”

Managing Attorney Jer Welter says, “We provide free legal services to people experiencing legal problems connected to sexual orientation or gender identity.” In 2014 the nonprofit closed more than 150 cases. Their work includes discrimination cases, name changes, family and custody matters, and more.

Seed money

FreeState Legal Project used the $10,000 Wells Fargo grant as seed money for a statewide initiative to send trainers and educators to schools to talk about bullying and safety for LGBT youth. That investment has since grown to include additional grants and donations from individuals and businesses totaling more than $100,000.

“It’s a great example of how corporate philanthropy can help launch programs — a form of social venture capitalism,” says Aaron Merki, a former executive director who helped found FreeState Legal eight years ago.

The training and outreach are required, according to Saida Agostini, director of LGBTQ Resources for FreeState Legal Project, because LGBT youth often feel unsafe at school and in their communities. “We’ve made a lot of strides in equality over the past few years, so people tend to assume that everything is better for LGBT youth,” she says. “But that’s not always the case. There’s so much more work that can be done.”

According to a survey by GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network:

  • 55.5 percent of LGBT students feel unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and 37.8 percent feel unsafe because of their gender expression.
  • 30.3 percent of LGBT students missed at least one day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable, and 10.6 percent missed four or more days.

In addition to at-school training, the FreeState Legal Project also educates mental health providers, law enforcement, foster care families, and others about bullying and LGBT issues.

Wells Fargo is also a founding corporate sponsor of the It Gets Better Project™, a social movement to end harassment.

Pat Callahan, Wells Fargo’s chief administrative officer, says, “Wells Fargo’s support of anti-bullying efforts is consistent with the company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. When children learn the value of inclusiveness at school, they carry it with them throughout life. Investing in students today not only helps keep vulnerable children in school, but it is a down payment to ensure an inclusive workforce and society tomorrow.”