Linda Giannasso hates to ask for help. When she broke her foot a few months ago, she figured she could handle it on her own. “I’m very independent,” she explains. “So I tried to do everything.”
But the retired college professor lives alone in a house full of stairs, and getting around to do simple chores soon proved to be too difficult: After one week, she had a “meltdown,” she reveals. Giannasso is a lesbian, and one of her friends called SisterCare of WNC.
Since last October, SisterCare has been providing short-term, in-home support services to LGBTQ people in Buncombe and Henderson counties who are “out of commission for a while” due to things like an illness, a broken leg, a spell of loneliness or unemployment, says Sandy Johnson, vice president of the nonprofit’s board. “People are very hesitant to go out and ask for help,” adds board President Sandi Franklin. “They need a safe place to come where they don’t have to worry about discrimination.”
Gay people who are transplants to the area, notes Johnson, may have fewer connections and a more limited support system; some have no children or family nearby. And the generally available public services, she continues, tend to “focus on the standard heterosexual model. LGBTQ people … feel the discrimination whether it’s there or not. Our services provide the personal connections that aren’t in other services.”
Meanwhile, even those with family and friends in the area, says Johnson, “can overextend people’s ability to provide you support. … That’s where we come in.”
The little things
When Giannasso first heard about SisterCare, she didn’t think she’d ever need its services, “but we never know,” she says. SisterCare volunteers helped Giannasso with the little things she couldn’t do on a broken foot, like changing her sheets and refilling the bird feeders. “I don’t know what I would’ve done without them,” she says. “They were pretty much a lifesaver.”
Operating on a shoestring budget (about $7,000, according to the website), the nonprofit relies heavily on volunteers. People needing assistance call the organization and complete an application; the board of directors then assesses whether the applicant’s situation fits the group’s criteria.
Even with about 50 trained volunteers, notes Johnson, the nonprofit’s capacity is limited, and SisterCare can’t help people with broader long-term issues such as homelessness. “Right now we’re focusing on short-term situations,” she explains. “We go out and speak with [potential clients] directly. We take into account their living environment. What do they need help with? And why? What are the circumstances?”
To date, the fledgling 501(c)(3) nonprofit has helped a handful of clients with pet care, housecleaning, laundry, yard work, transportation and more, all aimed at helping them continue to live independently. After training and a background check, volunteers are sent to clients’ homes in pairs. “Some people are still not out,” says volunteer Kristi Rogers. “But if they know the people that are here to take care of them know who they really are, it’s a comfort thing.”
Very few services aimed at aging populations specifically target older LGBTQ adults. “Senior care is very focused toward the heterosexual world,” Johnson explains. A 2011 study by the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging surveyed nearly 800 older adults in long-term-care facilities. Only 22 percent of respondents, the study found, felt that they could be open about their sexual orientation; 89 percent felt the staff would discriminate against them, and 43 percent reported having been mistreated by staff in the past. Much of the available senior care, says Johnson, “just doesn’t have the same sensitivity to what older gay adults deal with on a day-to-day basis.”
But SisterCare isn’t focused solely on the elderly, and even in its first few months, the organization’s vision has evolved. “Next year, five years from now, we’ll be significantly tweaked from what we are today,” says Johnson. “Our initial focus was on the lesbian community, because that’s what we were. As we proceeded down the whole train of thought, we realized we wanted to include everybody.”
Accordingly, SisterCare is expanding its scope to include “the trans population, the gay men, older, younger, urban, rural,” she continues, noting that the group also hopes to expand into Polk, Transylvania and Haywood counties. “There are all sorts of flavors in the community that we want to tap into.” The nonprofit has partnered with other local nonprofits, such as Youth OUTright, an Asheville-based organization serving young LGBTQ people. “I would like to see our community become more networked and cohesive,” says Johnson. “Building bridges between different groups of people builds a village.”
That kind of networking, notes Franklin, is how most people find out about SisterCare to begin with, and the board hopes to continue expanding and enhancing the group’s visibility throughout the gay community. The more the word gets out, says Rogers, the more volunteers the group will have, and the more money it will raise. In April, SisterCare held SpringFest, a live auction that brought in $4,000. In addition to cash donations, the nonprofit accepts useful items such as walkers and wheelchairs.
But what some clients really need most is a friend. “I may be the only person they’ve seen that week,” says Rogers. “A conversation, a hug, a smile, the comfort of knowing that there’s somebody you can call. It’s a good thing to know there’s people out there who do care, and they’re not judging you.”
Giannasso concurs. “I feel like the gay community would feel more comfortable with a service that is run by gays or lesbians,” she says. “It’s like family helping family.”