San Jose, CA

San Jose’s LGBTQ+ Youth Space: Connecting and Cultivating a Community

Vic Aquino
Program Director, Adrienne Keel(photo by: Vic Aquino)

Adrienne Keel is the program director for the LGBTQ+ youth program in San Jose. For the last 11 years, she’s led with a quiet intensity which bespeaks purpose and passion.

One wouldn’t expect anything less in a leader who must manage through individual and societal challenges, while creating a positive environment for everyone involved with the program.

From the stigma, through the pride and discovery, the essence of being human and fostering humanity is ultimately what Keel represents and strives for.

As Keel’s journey may soon sound familiar, her unbridled stewardship may even provide hints towards her possible legacy.

“When I'm long gone,” Keel had mentioned to her staff. “If people just said I opened doors for them, that’s a good legacy.”

The LGBTQ Youth Space of San Jose

A dedicated brick-and-mortar space used to be in the most perfect spot in the SOFA district of San Jose, but even without the ideal location, Keel keeps the spirit of the program intact.

“We had a pretty awesome downtown location, but we unfortunately did not renew our lease given the pandemic,” said Keel. “But we still had to figure out how to provide safe environments for our youth.”

Fortunately, Keel and her group had the support of their parent agency, Caminar, a health organization helping to empower local communities in the Bay Area.

San Jose’s current LGBTQ+ youth space is located at the Family & Children Services, a division of Caminar, on 950 West Julian Avenue, where Keel continues to navigate the program.

The majority of the program is funded through contracts with Santa Clara County. The Santa Clara County Behavioral Health Services Department basically puts out bids for LGBTQ+ services from counseling to substance use.

And like any business, Keel must assure the efficacy of their work. From data collection and record keeping, the bottom-line is to do good work where the youth and young adults are benefiting.

“A youth-centered experience around peers with similar life experiences is essential,” Keel added. “And we are training people to serve our youth populations because they are in different developmental stages with different stressors.”

The target youth population age is 13-25 years-old, where often they are not fully supporting themselves and are dependent on adults at home.

They primarily come in for community building reasons.

“They’re not coming in just because of trauma and we’re not a monolithic community,” expressed Keel. “Just like you or me, everybody’s needs are different.”

The staff that serves the program also started as youths who benefited from the program. They essentially become the ambassadors and new leaders who serve the next generation an individual at a time.

“We have folks with big personalities to the more introverted,” said Keel. “And the question is how do we help them feel safe, supported and celebrated. Our outreach program allows them to communicate to us in any way they feel comfortable.”

“How do I get connected to my people?”

Keel was a 17-year-old at Oak Grove High School in south San Jose, when she discovered a youth program at the Billy DeFrank LGBTQ Community Center.

“Every week I went religiously,” recollected Keel. “Because I did not feel incredibly connected at school.”

Keel describes feeling “checked out” and unsure of the future until she met her community and the DeFrank staff and volunteers who weren’t that much older than her living their lives giving back to young people.

Back at Oak Grove, Keel helped organize a club her senior year.

"It was then I thought this could be a career,” stated Keel. “Fast forward to my experience at Evergreen College then at San Jose State, where I said, ‘I want to find my community here.’”

There was not a pride center at the university during Keel’s time at San Jose State, so she helped to create a group again.

“It was very DIY without a campus infrastructure,” said Keel. “I attended it as much as I could, and I found my dearest friends by participating in this group.”

Keel continued to gain experience with her friends and new connections.

"A friend connected me with the opportunity to facilitate an LGBTQ+ support group at a local high school,” said Keel. “Then I graduated from college desperate for a meaningful job.”

Keel added, “That was almost 11 years ago from San Jose State to this point. It’s all really benefited me. I’m engaged, confident with a sense of belonging and sense of purpose.”

That’s not to say Keel has had it easier since, especially with the compounding effects of the pandemic.

“I am so privileged to have a great boss and great support from my partner,” shared Keel on rejuvenation and rediscovery. “And, of course, my friends from college are so near and dear to me. We’re here for each other and that’s how it should be for any of us - to have a support system."

How do we cultivate joy?

It’s often said the best answers come from good questions.

Simply asking ‘how do we cultivate joy?’ is probably the most succinct question any of us can continually ponder.

"I do think some of it is very fundamental stuff,” said Keel. “Then we go a bit further like how do we equip others to do great work wherever they are? How do we mobilize a small but mighty team? How do we develop leadership skills for the next generation of youth leaders?”

Clearly, Keel is looking to foster the journey of positivity well beyond herself, where it is then within each of us to sustain and spread good.

“Conversely, if we are rejecting young people for their identities, who they are, who they love, how they dress, how they express themselves – the outcomes can be dire, right?” said Keel. “But if we show up and support queer and trans youth, that’s a start. And that could just be, ‘Hey this is new for me, but I'm going to understand it.’”

“Every young person should feel like they belong and are beautiful and deserving of love and support,” Keel stated. “And we want everyone who walks in our doors to feel safe and feel like a million bucks.”

Keel is one of the many unsung, under-the-radar heroes we should seek out and support.

As hard as it may be to answer to constant challenges and live a healthy life, her battle is also ours, where the elusive answers are held within our human connections.


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A 50+ year San Jose-native focusing on social awareness, social good, social impact and the hidden gems and treasures of the area. Freelance journalist & sports contributor to SB Nation & SF 49ers (@VicD_SJ on Twitter).

San Jose, CA

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