Their parents rejected them because they were LGBTQ, but she and her husband took them in.

"Others refer to it as a safe house, we call it home."

Deb and Steve Word's home in Memphis, Tennessee. Photos via Deb Word, used with permission.


Deb and Steve Word are observant Catholics whose house in Memphis, Tennessee, might look ordinary but is anything but.

Over the past six years, Deb and Steve have fostered over a dozen homeless LGBT kids in their home, most of whom had been rejected by their families.

Not in spite of their Catholic faith, but because of it.

Deb and Steve Word.

"[It was a] WWJD kind of thing," Deb told me via e-mail. "We really just welcomed hurting kids into our spare bedrooms."

According to an interview with CNN, Deb and Steve already knew their son was gay when he came out to them at age 23. When they asked him why he waited so long, he made it clear that, because of their faith, he was worried they would disapprove.

It was a wake-up call for the couple.

Deb holds up a sign reading: "I'm a mom and it's up to me to end LGBT youth homelessness."

"We are practicing Catholics, and outreach is something we have always done in some way or another," Deb wrote in her e-mail. "The truth that rejection seriously hurts our kids is not something the church wants to talk about."

"It is what I would want for my kids if they needed help and had no family to help them." — Deb Word

For Deb and Steve, it was crucial for the kids who lived with them to feel like their house was a home and that they were part of a loving, accepting family. The kids did chores and helped at mealtimes. Many continue to call Deb and Steve "Ma" and "Pop" to this day.

"[One] youth was with us when his mother died. He reconciled with her before she died, but he still carries a lot of baggage. He has moved away, but I hear from him every week, and he comes to visit when he's in town," Deb wrote. "Another of my boys was DADT'd out of the Navy [discharged under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"]. [His] mom didn't know he was coming home or that he was gay. He went thru a really rough period, but is doing great now and back in school with a plan for his future. One of the kids I see every week or so, [is] a trans man who is a great advocate!"

At times, Deb and Steve have struggled to reconcile their religious community and their mission.

"A group I volunteer for, Fortunate Families, is a Catholic group of parents of LGBT kids who help support other parents walk the journey," Deb wrote. "As a group, we were denied an exhibit space at a huge Catholic gathering, (World Meeting of Families) ... Some of the greatest harm to these kids has been done in the name of religion (not God, religion)."

A Fortunate Families booth.

Their work has led to some heartbreaking moments.

"We lost one of our kids a year after he left us. His funeral was one of the hardest things I've ever done," Deb explained, "Parents need to understand the harm that comes from rejection."

But despite the rough moments and heartache, to Deb and Steve, the choice to open their home was an obvious one. Though they have retired from taking in new kids, the couple is currently working with the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center to build a larger shelter for local LGBT kids who need housing and support.

"It is what I would want for my kids if they needed help and had no family to help them," Deb wrote.

And while fostering is a demanding, often complicated job, for Deb, the most important thing they've done for the kids they've helped raise is so simple, it can be summed up in two words:

"Loved them."

Deb Word with one of her foster children.

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Shanda Lynn Poitra was born and raised on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in Belcourt, North Dakota. She lived there until she was 24 years old when she left for college at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

"Unfortunately," she says, "I took my bad relationship with me. At the time, I didn't realize it was so bad, much less, abusive. Seeing and hearing about abusive relationships while growing up gave me the mentality that it was just a normal way of life."

Those college years away from home were difficult for a lot of reasons. She had three small children — two in diapers, one in elementary school — as well as a full-time University class schedule and a part-time job as a housekeeper.

"I wore many masks back then and clothing that would cover the bruises," she remembers. "Despite the darkness that I was living in, I was a great student; I knew that no matter what, I HAD to succeed. I knew there was more to my future than what I was living, so I kept working hard."

While searching for an elective class during this time, she came across a one-credit, 20-hour IMPACT self-defense class that could be done over a weekend. That single credit changed her life forever. It helped give her the confidence to leave her abusive relationship and inspired her to bring IMPACT classes to other Native women in her community.

I walked into class on a Friday thinking that I would simply learn how to handle a person trying to rob me, and I walked out on a Sunday evening with a voice so powerful that I could handle the most passive attacks to my being, along with physical attacks."

It didn't take long for her to notice the difference the class was making in her life.

"I was setting boundaries and people were either respecting them or not, but I was able to acknowledge who was worth keeping in my life and who wasn't," she says.

Following the class, she also joined a roller derby league where she met many other powerful women who inspired her — and during that summer, she found the courage to leave her abuser.

"As afraid as I was, I finally had the courage to report the abuse to legal authorities, and I had the support of friends and family who provided comfort for my children and I during this time," she says.

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