Lewis County is known for many things. An abundance of resources for younger members of its LGBTQ community is not one of the county calling cards.
Kimberly Parnel of Centralia hopes to change that by starting a Lewis County chapter of the national nonprofit Free Mom Hugs, an organization that serves on the local level as a resource for children and teenagers across the sexuality spectrum while also advocating for the population on a broader scale.
Parnel is a member of the LGBTQ community, as are two of her children. She hosted the first meeting of the local chapter Tuesday at a local coffee shop and was encouraged by the small yet enthusiastic turnout. She plans to host another meeting on an upcoming Saturday so more people can attend without work or family conflicts.
“I came across Free Mom Hugs on social media and saw what they did,” Parnel said. “They’re focused on being supportive of the younger community, but it’s not exclusive to that. I’d been a kind of stand-in mom for a lot of kids as I raised my own, and it fits with who I am. Plus, I give great hugs.”
One of Parnel’s good friends, Danielle Westbrook, saw her posting about the group on Facebook and asked to sign on as the “cool auntie.” She lives in the Olympia area, where there are a large number of community resources available for the LGBTQ community, and said she is well aware of the need for similar coordination in Lewis County.
Members of Free Mom Hugs have sometimes stepped in for parents of LGBTQ persons at weddings, graduations, and other significant life events a disapproving mother or father may choose not to attend. Westbrook also believes that the more socially conservative population of Lewis County will be receptive to the local chapter as it grows and becomes active in the community.
“I think everyone, from conservatives to progressives, can agree that kids deserve support and need a good network around them,” Westbrook said. “With suicide rates among the LGBTQ population rising, especially for kids, I think we can all see the benefit of better supporting them. People are just people, and I think the benefitting of kids will resonate no matter what someone’s beliefs are, or at least it should. We don’t need to change the hearts of minds of people, just be there for the kids.”
As the local Free Mom Hugs group becomes more established, Parnel and Westbrook hope to find a permanent location for regular meetings. They also want to reach out to Gender and Sexualities Alliance clubs at area schools as well as other local organizations with which partnerships could be formed.
Parnel hopes to hold or participate in community events sometime down the road. A trip to the Capital City Pride Parade and Festival on June 23 in Olympia is in the works.
“I think it’s a matter of us putting it all together for our community to gain access to,” Parnel said. “I’ve found out about some advocacy groups being put together that are geared towards homeless LGBTQ youth, so that was exciting to hear about. I think there’s a misconception that Free Mom Hugs is just for parents, but it’s really an open concept for anyone who wants to be an ally. Dad hugs are good, too.”