LANCASTER, Pa. (WHTM) — “We’re here, and we’re queer, and we’re ready to party,” Karen Foley said. Foley is the executive director of the Lancaster LBGTQ+ Coalition, which is celebrating the third anniversary of its launch on Sunday with a GAYLA at Tellus 360.

Foley has been a therapist working with the LGBTQ community in Lancaster for more than a decade. “I know that 75% of my work is done if my community has a place to connect and be around their people,” Foley said, “and there was nowhere to do that.”

So in February of 2019, the Coalition held its first stakeholder meeting, and then it started launching programs to bring the area’s LGBTQ community together. It held its official launch party in November of that year, and that turnout highlighted just how excited the community was to have an organization like the Coalition.

“I couldn’t believe how many people showed up. It was a freezing cold rainy Tuesday, and there were like 450 people there,” Foley recalled.

During the Coalition’s first Extraordinary Give — an annual Lancaster-wide event that raises money for local nonprofits — the organization received more than 530 individual donations. “We really had the confirmation that we have a really strong grassroots support system. People are showing up for us,” Foley said.

Just as the Coalition began to pick up steam, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. But that didn’t stop the organization from stepping up and finding ways to continue supporting the community.

The Coalition offered mini-grants for individuals to use as needed, which revealed that housing and rent support were some of the most prevalent needs among community members. This led the Coalition to create the HEART program, which provides affordable affirmative housing for LGBTQ individuals.

Although the pandemic made it more difficult to connect with others and presented new challenges for the Coalition and the community, people continued to support the Coalition. “How we survived is the support from our community,” Foley said.

Foley remembers one donation in particular that reinvigorated the Coalition as the pandemic dragged on.

“The one call from a donor saying ‘I want you to have’ — I’m going to cry — ‘I want you to have this money so that when you open again, people can see your sign and come.’ And in that moment, it was so needed in that one moment, and it gave me the fuel to be like ‘And I can go. I can keep going,'” Foley recounted.

And Foley and the Coalition have indeed kept going, now preparing to celebrate the organization’s third anniversary.

“It feels incredible that we’ve made it through hopefully what is the worst of the pandemic,” Foley said, and now they are ready to celebrate with the Coalition’s first GAYLA. “I can’t even imagine a year ago thinking we could be here and doing this. That’s why we’re going way over the top.”

The GAYLA at Tellus 360 on Sunday, Nov. 14, will include an awards ceremony honoring people who have been integral to the Coalition as well as food, a sparkly signature cocktail, photo opportunities on the rainbow carpet, and a dance party. Guests are encouraged to wear their “galactic best” to the event.

After celebrating the third anniversary of the Coalition’s launch, Foley has big plans for the organization’s next few years. For one thing, the Coalition will soon be launching an LGBTQ health consortium with Dr. Sharee Livingston of Patients R Waiting that aims to connect providers, incentivize student research, and educate the medical community to better care for LGBTQ individuals’ health.

Lancaster LGBTQ+ Coalition health consortium (Foley is second from the left) | Credit: Michelle Johnson Photography

The Coalition is also working on opening an LGBTQ community hub “where every intersection can feel safe and celebrated,” Foley said.

The hub will host and connect community members with other nonprofits serving LGBTQ individuals as well as minority-owned businesses.

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“This community hub has so much potential. We have this ability to grow, to add potentially a music venue, to add a coffee shop, to add subsidized housing, and so this hub where we will start our community center and nonprofit coalescing will have so much potential to grow over the next five years,” Foley said.

Ultimately, Foley envisions this hub as “a one-stop shop for people to come in any intersection to get legal help, to get medical help, to get mental health services, have a place to hang out, have a library to have some coffee and sit down.”

Anyone interested in supporting the efforts of the Lancaster LGBTQ+ Coalition can donate during the Extraordinary Give on Nov. 19.