Changemakers: Group gives LGBTQ+ students a safe place to speak out and pizza, too

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- It's a new approach to stop bullying of kids who are targeted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. According to the people behind it, it's drastically reduced teen suicides.

This work began following a rash of suicides in Thurston County involving LGBTQ+ students. Some adults who understood their isolation took action by inviting any students who wanted to attend to have a slice of pizza and talk.

"I feel comfortable being honest... and other people do too," Pizza Klatch co-founder Teresa Guajardo read from a student's letter.

Letters give people a way to open up, to share their feelings and, in this case, gratitude.

"Thank you, this is my safe place," she said, reading from the letters.

That safe place, according to hundreds of students in Thurston County, is Pizza Klatch.

"That spark of recognition and belonging is so profound for a person," Guajardo said. "And it can increase the likelihood that they are not going to commit suicide."

Working as a mental health counselor, Guajardo spotted the trend: a spike in teen suicides among LGBTQ+ students in 2007. She related to some of the torment those teenagers were feelings.

"I did experience quite a bit of bullying in several of the schools that I went to," she said.

So she teamed up with therapist Lynn Grotsky, and with the help of others they approached area high schools. North Thurston High in Olympia said yes, allowing Pizza Klatch to host an in-school support group.

"We found that bullying plummeted in that school in that first year" Guajardo said. "It was phenomenal."

Along with other trained professionals, they served up a simple recipe: free pizza, supportive adults and a confidential and safe space for students to share.

"Just feeling like you're not weird and you're not alone. Especially in your teens and in high school when that whole situation can make you feel those ways," said El Sanchez, who runs some of the lunchtime support groups.

Executive Director Rosalinda Noriega says Pizza Klatch is now serving 15 schools and more than 400 students in the county. Still, she says the need is overwhelming, as seen when they recently started support groups at Yelm High School.

"We were blown away by the time we got to Yelm," Noriega said. "The first week there was 88 students that showed up, which now accounts for 19 percent of the students we're seeing each week. At one school in a rural area, where we thought we'd see less than a handful of students. So there's a huge need."

They are now developing a program to bring Pizza Klatch to other communities in Washington state and across the country.