(Editor’s note: This article contains references to suicide and self-harm. If you are having thoughts of suicide or are in crisis, call 988 to talk to a counselor or 911 for medical attention.)
He was cutting himself and his mother was worried.
Whom should she call? Who could help her son John, who is gay, and doesn’t have an accepting community in Asheville, N.C.? She asked around. Trevor Project, one person said. Trevor Project, another said. Trevor Project. Trevor Project. Reach out to the Trevor Project, the world’s largest nonprofit assisting LGBTQ+ youth.
Phone service, his mother Darlene Coleman said, is unreliable in the town so she selected “chat” on the organization’s homepage, hoping to talk to a counselor.
She waited. And waited. For five minutes, then 10, 15, 40, and 47 minutes. No one answered. The website warned her that hold times were longer than usual. But this long? It had taken her forever to convince John, who asked for his name to be changed for fear of backlash, to even talk to someone. This wasn’t helping.
She checked back later that day. And waited on hold. And waited some more. She gave up, then tried the hotline the next day. Again she waited and waited until eventually giving up.
What, she wondered, was going on at the Trevor Project? How could the organization dedicated to preventing LGBTQ+ youth suicide not help her son? Coleman reached out to several other organizations before getting help from the Rainbow Youth Project, but the question still haunts her: What if someone wasn’t as determined as she was? What if someone in crisis didn’t want to wait around for hours to talk to someone?
Her son looked at her and said, “They really don’t give a damn if I’m here or not.”
“I’ll never forget that as long as I live,” Coleman said, tearing up.
Her experience isn’t an anomaly. Josh Weaver, who was Trevor’s vice president of marketing until November 2022, said the average wait times to talk to a Trevor counselor are about three minutes. But during nights and weekends, they said, wait times often exceed 30 minutes. Another employee confirmed that wait times could stretch anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours during peak periods.
“That could be life or death,” Weaver said.
The Human Rights Campaign has issued a state of emergency for LGBTQ+ people in the United States. Legislators around the country introduced and passed a record 75 anti-LGBTQ+ bills just eight months into 2023.
The stakes could not be higher. A Trevor Project study found that close to half of LGBTQ youth considered suicide in 2022. But when those LGBTQ youth were surrounded by communities supportive of their identity, the study found, the rate of attempted suicide dropped dramatically.
In 2022, Trevor’s phone and chat lines supported a record number of people, more than 236,000, through calls, texts, and online chats, according to the organization’s 2022 annual report. And the organization has been rapidly expanding, seeking to help more and more youth.
But in interviews, 11 current and former Trevor employees, many speaking to the Blade anonymously for fear of retaliation, said that growth was much too fast and came at the cost of service.
Former CEO Amit Paley spearheaded the organization’s expansion from a handful of people to a massive organization with more than 700 employees. In the process, the employees said, it became more like a corporation than a nonprofit.
“A lot of us were joking that it was the most corporatized nonprofit that anyone has ever worked for,” said a former mid-level employee who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It was very money driven, very growth, growth, growth.”
Trevor’s coffers had $9.7 million in them in 2018 and rose to more than five times that in 2022, close to $55 million. The marketing, content, and communications team was even called the “growth vertical.”
Informed about the size of Trevor’s assets, though, Coleman was outraged.
“Fifty-four million dollars,” she repeated. “And they can’t answer a damn phone?”
That growth put massive pressure on Trevor’s staff, especially the people running crisis services.
“Those wait times are there because it’s demand, demand, demand, demand, let’s get everything out there,” Weaver said. “Let’s get as many people as possible and not think about the quality of it.”
Suddenly, crisis workers couldn’t take time off between calls to regroup without taking paid time off or sick leave. The crisis workers criticized that policy, saying that they needed to be doing well to support callers, but management didn’t budge. The managers cited Trevor’s “tools to support wellness” in an email seen by the Blade.
“We are building structure and accountability so that we have counselors available when youth call. That means putting structure around when and how crisis workers are spending time not interacting with youth,” an email sent on Sept. 2, 2022, from the lifeline management team – Richard Ham, Vivian Suniga, and Heather Gillespie – read.
A month later, on Oct. 20, 2022, the team followed up with an even more blunt email message.
“Given our current call per hour metrics (1.2 calls per hour per crisis worker), September’s call outs and partial shifts would equate to 470 LGBTQ youth in crisis we were unable to support.”
A Trevor employee familiar with Trevor’s crisis services speaking on condition of anonymity said Gillespie resisted calls for crisis counselors to get more time off – despite the difficult job counselors have.
“The work is very heavy, it’s very challenging,” the employee who used to be a crisis counselor said.
Counselors are often working with youth contemplating suicide or even in the process of taking their own lives and many of the counselors are coping with their own stress because they are also members of marginalized groups, they said. Not to mention the prank calls and callers using the line for sexual gratification.
The three managers who had authored that blunt assessment in the email as well as three other Trevor Lifeline leaders were later fired after being placed on administrative leave, but the policy didn’t change, the anonymous source said. Counselors were reportedly told to take as many calls as possible.
Some transgender staff, staff of color, and disabled staff felt erased and unable to be themselves, which reached a breaking point at a routine meeting in October 2022. In it, top staffers presented the results of that year’s staff climate survey.
The results of the survey were harrowing. About two-thirds of staff said they weren’t satisfied with how decisions are made at Trevor, according to its results reviewed by the Blade.
A majority – 55% – of Trevor employees said they hadn’t seen positive changes based on the last climate survey. Most employees said they weren’t satisfied with the leadership or had no opinion. Only slightly more than half of the staff said they wake up feeling fresh and rested for work – though, the data emphasized, that was up 12% from the previous year. Far fewer employees – though still a vast majority, three quarters – said they would recommend Trevor as a great place to work.
In previous years the results presented to staff did break down the satisfaction by race or gender. When Black staffers pointed that out, they were “completely dismissed,” said Preston Mitchum, who was the director of advocacy and government affairs at Trevor before he quit in February.
“With the numbers that have been presented, we have an obligation to maintain a level of confidentiality and anonymity within this process,” Meg Fox, who was the director of people, culture, and experience until July, said in a recording reviewed by the Blade. “Again, for 20 years I’ve been doing surveys, that has been the path paramount principle by which we live by, so nobody is trying to silence anybody’s voice here.”
When the results were finally released after several weeks of pressure, Latinx staffers showed the lowest level of satisfaction, numerous former staffers said.
That process angered staff who were tired of being ignored, Mitchum said. Resentments deepened following reporting in HuffPost about Paley’s role, when working as a management consultant for McKinsey & Co., working to reduce Purdue Pharma’s legal liability over opioid litigation brought by 47 state attorneys general.
“It became a ticking time bomb,” Mitchum said.
Enter the Trevolution — or the Trevorpocalypse, depending on whom you ask. The fire burned and burned, and Trevor’s board of directors eventually forced Paley out of the organization. The board quickly replaced him with Trevor’s co-founder, Peggy Rajski, in November 2022.
Trevor’s board, a former manager said, wanted to portray stability with her hire. But it ended up only exacerbating the controversies within the organization. Richard Vargas, who was Trevor’s senior operations associate and used to run the organization’s New York office, was one of many who raised red flags about her performance.
Critics pointed to her ousting from Loyola Marymount University, where she was the dean of its School of Film and Television for less than three years.
“She was known to rant and rave at people,” a former Loyola Marymount University professor said, according to The Wrap, which was first to report Rajski’s ousting.
Rajski spent her first weeks organizing listening tours – with a select few people chosen from each department and affinity group. Sources familiar with those conversations said she was sympathetic to staff concerns, saying that she couldn’t believe what Paley put the organization through.
The honeymoon was short lived as she started describing staff who spoke out as rude, arrogant, and worse, sources told the Blade. Current and former staff said she criticized workers for speaking out, blaming problems on everyone but herself, misgendering staff – and being offended when corrected – and making everything about herself.
“I saw that in all hands meetings, she would get very snippy, very combative,” said Vargas, the former New York office manager.
During a meeting in which she announced layoffs at Trevor – 12% of its workforce – she chided staff for using emoji reactions in the chat, he said.
The 44 mid- and upper-level staff were laid off after, seemingly, a huge budget hole emerged. It’s unclear how big exactly that hole is – a Trevor Project statement revealed a “sharp drop” in revenue but did not provide an exact figure, and no current and former employees who spoke to the Blade were able to provide an exact figure.
One former employee said they were told there was a $25.2 million deficit in late April of this year, but former Head of Finance and Administration Joel Lam said he had gotten the deficit down to about $6 million. Another former employee familiar with the organization’s finances confirmed that the deficit was between $4 million and $7 million around then.
That didn’t worry the Trevor Project’s executives, according to a former employee, because the organization had more than enough money in its reserves – about $55 million at the end of July 2022, according to public financial documents – to cover that loss.
But sometime between late April and June of this year, the Trevor ship sprang a huge leak.
The entire recruitment team, payroll team, the training team for Trevor’s hotline, much of the financial team, as well as other staff were laid off, sparking anger.
What, they wondered, happened to the $55 million the organization had reported in assets?
No one is sure what happened and a Trevor spokesperson declined to make executives available for an interview. But the staff have some ideas. They cite Trevor’s rapid expansion in the past years under Paley as a main cause and some described wasteful spending.
Trevor’s leadership would tell employees to spend surplus funds at the end of year, instead of putting them into Trevor’s reserves – even when the deficit was discovered, according to a former employee.
“There were no policies around spending either,” the source said.
A Trevor Project statement said that the organization made budget cuts, reduced outside consulting expenses, instituted a hiring freeze, limited non-urgent work travel, and used its reserve to close the deficit. Two current employees confirmed that travel restrictions seem to have taken place.
The organization created a new role that oversees both Trevor’s digital operation and its phone lines – instead of hiring one person for each. It did not hire more lifeline associates, a source told the Blade. Both employees pointed out, though, that there are several open roles on Trevor’s website. One employee said the organization considered the positions “mission critical,” which is why they were posted.
It’s unclear how much revenue Trevor lost – representatives for the federal government, Trevor, and for Vibrant Emotional Health all declined to reveal the figure. The Blade has submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the numbers.
The layoffs upset those close to the Trevor Project, but they didn’t receive widespread recognition. Layoffs among the 988 anti-suicide line staff representing the Trevor Project did, though, thanks to TikTok.
“Basically, we are being told, you are without a job – we can try and get you a job but you might have a job, good luck out there,” Eli, a former crisis counselor working for Trevor, said in a viral TikTok video that racked up 62,000 views. He did not respond to a request for comment.
988 Suicide Hotline & the Trevor Project
The National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020 created 988’s LGBTQ+ subnetwork as a pilot project. During that pilot, the Trevor Project was the only organization running the section of 988 dedicated to LGBTQ+ youth. Mitchum said he pushed back on that, saying Trevor did not have the resources to run the lifeline by itself and even if it did, more than one organization should provide support. Then-CEO Paley, though, reportedly disagreed.
“I think Trevor became so bogged down in the minutiae of money, of notoriety, of power, that it lost all ideas of responsibility to LGBTQ people,” Mitchum said.
Nevertheless, 988 lifeline administrator Vibrant Emotional Health sent out a request for proposals for the pilot project, several former employees confirmed to the Blade, but it is unclear if any organizations other than Trevor applied.
The Trevor Project was the only organization running the LGBTQ+ line. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, charged with federal oversight of the 988 program, pumped $7.2 million into the pilot. The federal government vastly underestimated the numbers of callers and texters to the line, leaving Trevor short-staffed and unprepared for the surge of people seeking support, a source told the Blade. Long wait times were the norm, so much so that Vibrant rebuked Trevor over the issue, two former staffers told the Blade.
Trevor kept the news about the dedicated LGBTQ+ line quiet until December, when it announced the service in a press release – despite its soft launch in September of 2022.
“The Trevor Project is incredibly thankful to the federal government for the major investment in these life-saving specialized services,” Mitchum said in the press release. “It’s vital that all young people have access to culturally competent care in moments of crisis.”
The 988 program was successful enough for Vibrant to make the hotline a permanent fixture less than a year later in July. This time, the federal government allocated $29.7 million to the LGBTQ+ subnetwork – more than three times the amount that the entire 988 lifeline received in 2021.
As part of the expansion, Vibrant decided to increase the number of call centers running the LGBTQ+ crisis line from just one, the Trevor Project, to seven, with Trevor still on board. The change meant a smaller piece of the pie for Trevor – the $29.7 million would now be distributed among seven different organizations.
That decision came as a shock to Trevor, Mitchum reflected.
“After a while, Trevor leadership genuinely thought we would never have additional providers outside of Trevor,” Mitchum told the Blade.
A Trevor Project spokesperson said in a June statement that the organization had “recently learned” about the expansion of the LGBTQ subnetwork. The Trevor statement noted that the expansion would lead to “an exponential increase in support for the number of LGBTQ callers and texters to the 988 Lifeline.”
Having to split the funding, though, was enough to cause Trevor lay off more than 200 crisis workers, Trevor Project crisis counselor Finn Depriest said.
The counselors received the news on May 14. They had been invited by an email entitled “988 updates” with a meeting link. The crisis counselors’ recruiters, managers said, would contact them by the end of the day to let them know if they were fired or not.
Depriest got their call and was in luck. But fellow crisis counselor Rae Kaplan wasn’t so lucky. A person in Trevor’s IT department – not even her recruiter – told her she was being let go.
“I was definitely starting to have a panic attack,” Kaplan said.
A whirlwind of communication followed. Staff were first told they would be laid off on July 2, two weeks after the meeting, but were later told that Trevor had secured more funding to keep the counselors on its payroll until Aug. 31. Now, a Trevor spokesperson confirmed, the organization has received additional funding to keep the counselors on through the end of September.
Kaplan took advantage of the offer to stay on until August when they received it but was fired in July for reacting with emojis during an all-staff meeting, they said.
Toby Everhart was scheduled to begin work at Trevor the same day the layoffs were announced. But at their orientation, they were suddenly told they were no longer needed. They posted their now-viral TikTok with 91,500 views.
Everhart moves down in the frame of their TikTok video to reveal the Trevor Project’s website, warning that “wait times to reach a counselor are higher than usual.”
“Which is so weird,” Everhart continued in the video posted June 9, “because this is what their website said right after I got laid off.”
In reality, the higher wait times were unrelated to the position they were hired for, working on the 988 line. Counselors for Trevor’s crisis services, who run the services on the organization’s website and phone line, are employed by the Trevor Project directly. Counselors working on the 988 hotline representing Trevor, what Everhart was hired for, are contractors employed through recruiting company Insight Global.
No counselors working directly for Trevor’s Lifeline or TrevorChat products have been laid off, several current employees confirmed, and a surge in wait times for Trevor’s own services has no bearing on wait times for 988 counselors. A Trevor spokesperson did not respond to a message seeking comment.
A statement from Vibrant showed that the average time on hold had risen slightly, from 34 seconds to 36 seconds, despite the addition of six more centers taking calls. The Blade’s query on Trevor’s community platform, TrevorSpace, asking whether people had experienced longer hold times on the 988 hotline was deleted by administrators. The administrators cited “inappropriate promotion” as a reason and issued a warning.
An automated message checks in on those waiting on hold, but kids “in a truly acute mental health crisis” won’t wait and won’t respond to automated prompts, a source told the Blade.
The six new organizations running the LGBTQ+ youth hotline, CommUnity, EMPACT-Suicide Prevention Center, Solari, Inc., Centerstone of Tennessee, Inc., PRS CrisisLink, and Volunteers of America Western Washington, aren’t well known in the tight-knit LGBTQ+ advocacy world. From what Depriest has been able to tell, it hasn’t been going well.
“Their resources are not helpful, and they’re not very personable,” Depriest said. “They don’t have the trauma-informed training that we have had to take. And you could tell a big difference.”
Lance Preston, who runs the small LGBTQ+ crisis organization Rainbow Youth, pointed specifically to the Volunteers of America Western Washington organization. He said his organization has attempted to place homeless youth at their facilities across the nation but has had many issues. Preston declined to elaborate.
In a statement, a Vibrant spokesperson said that each call center must submit their LGBTQ+ competency training program for approval. Each backup center, according to Vibrant, has “similar training requirements” and access to the same training support. Vibrant also announced a two-year program to improve staff training.
But Mitchum, Trevor’s former director of advocacy and government affairs, who was intimately involved in the rollout of 988’s LGBTQ+ hotline, told the Blade that more providers for the line is a good thing.
“The people you talk to may say that it’s negligent to have these orgs who have no services, a lack of training, allegedly,” he said. “But why can’t they build them out? If Trevor actually cares about LGBTQ youth, not just their organization, why can’t they support these organizations, and build out these trainings that they say are best in class?”
Concerns about diversity
Issues concerning the organization’s diversity have cropped up, including during Trevor’s expansion to Mexico. Instead of hiring a translator, it asked Latinx staff to translate material into Spanish, Vargas, the former New York office manager, said. Another Latinx former staff member said the group was treated as a monolith. The entire group were congratulated on Mexican Independence Day – even though not all the Latinx staff were Mexican-American.
Mitchum told the Blade decision makers at Trevor never took the diversity concerns seriously. Weaver, former vice president of marketing, said the Trevor Project was more focused on checking boxes and performative diversity.
CEO Rajski said that the organization is committed to diversity in a statement Trevor sent to the Blade.
“Over the years, I’ve seen the organization I started, flourish and adjust to the changing needs of LGBTQ young people and shifting our outreach efforts to highlight the needs of the most marginalized LGBTQ young people — including young people of color and transgender and nonbinary young people.”
These and other concerns led to the Friends of Trevor United union being formed in early 2022. That process was far from easy. Trevor did not immediately recognize the union, instead asking for a card count, where employees sign union authorization cards. A Trevor Project spokesperson said the organization recognized the union voluntarily – which is true, but insisted that a “wide margin” of cards support Friends of Trevor.
Gloria Middleton, president of the Communications Workers of America Local 1180, under which Friends of Trevor is organized, said Trevor opposed the union. While union organizers were in talks with Trevor, the organization began laying off workers. The union condemned that, calling it “union busting,” and said that Trevor intentionally gave the union very little time to respond.
Trevor provided Friends of Trevor with a formal layoff plan on June 29, according to a union Instagram post. The union did not post anything about the layoffs publicly until July 6 – layoff day. A Trevor Project statement said it notified the union on May 31, but Middleton said it was only informed on June 16 and the information did not include information about the timing, scope, and impact of the layoffs.
Some asked if the layoffs were retribution for the formation of the union. The Trevor Project strongly denies this, pointing out that it laid off both workers in the union and non- union employees. The union, though, questions why Trevor announced layoffs during the negotiations and not before.
“With an employer, there’s nothing in the law to my knowledge that says they can’t lay off at any time, to my knowledge,” Middleton said. “It’s just about the way it looks.”
Current and former staff told the Blade that Trevor targets dissidents, the employees that speak out against leadership. Vargas, who wrote a letter of solidarity to staff that spoke up about their mistreatment? Laid off. Josh Weaver, who is Black and spoke about having staff satisfaction data stratified by race and gender and amplified staff concerns? Laid off, though before the July layoffs. And many more, employees say.
“If I were white, I would have had a second chance. I’m certain of it,” Weaver said. “If I were a white person, I would have gotten a reprimand. I would not have been in the same situation.”
The staff who spoke on condition of anonymity with the Blade were worried about retribution as well – even those who no longer work at Trevor. A message the Blade received through a secure dropbox sums it up well:
“Thank you for doing this. I wish I could talk to you without losing my job,” the text document submitted reads. “Give them hell.”
Even Trevor Project co-founder Celeste Lecesne slammed the organization in a statement last month released by the Communications Workers of America.
“When I co-founded The Trevor Project, I did so to create a resource for LGBTQ+ youth who are struggling to express their identity and feel accepted in a world where being gay or trans can feel terrifying. The Trevor Project is about supporting each other, and to see the way these workers have been treated by management – for engaging in their right to organize – is appalling and completely unacceptable,” said Lecesne, who no longer works for the organization. “The workers being targeted have saved lives and helped countless members of the LGBTQ+ community feel heard. It’s time that management hears these workers and joins them in their fight to create a more equitable workplace.”
In a statement to the Blade, the Trevor Project said it takes its obligation not to retaliate against employees seriously.
“We have a strict anti-retaliation policy, which The Trevor Project upholds, and retaliation in violation of any law or policy is not permitted.”
Middleton said that while Trevor’s behavior is terrible, it’s not unusual. Major nonprofits with good missions become corporatized and start treating their workers poorly.
“They run the companies like most American companies run,” she said. “The bosses get the money, the workers get the minimal amount of income, just do the job.”
Indeed, former CEO Amit Paley made $473,969 between August 2021 and July 2022, according to Trevor financial documents. Meanwhile, fewer than half of employees said they received a fair salary in the survey, according to a copy the Blade has seen.
Not only do staff say they are not paid a fair wage, they say they must work under an executive that does not seem to care about the mission.
“Peggy created this organization in 1998 on the heels of a movie that was about a white, cisgender gay boy,” said Weaver, the former vice president of marketing. “And I think the aspect of queerness and its multifariousness today is something that Peggy does not want to really jibe with.”
Rajski had to be “pulled up” to include messaging about transgender and nonbinary people, a source said. Within the organization, Mitchum said Black staff weren’t promoted like others, nor were they paid as well. This is “actively the issue” inside Trevor, he added.
In a statement provided by a Trevor spokesperson, Rajski acknowledged she doesn’t always “get it right.”
“The gift of being part of Team Trevor is being able to serve, learn from, and grow with some of the most talented mission-focused leaders and staff,” she said in the statement. “I have recognized deeply how critical the need is in the LGBTQ community to have supportive and affirming allies — and how to be that kind of ally in new and better ways.”
She presents herself as an ally in the statement and in other public appearances. She called herself the “straight, white, godmother of a gay suicidal hotline,” in an interview with NPR affiliate KCUR in Kansas City, prompting ridicule among staff. But it pointed at a larger issue, employees told the Blade: Trevor’s C-suite is almost entirely white and cisgender.
“I think there needs to be a permanent CEO who is LGBTQ+,” Mitchum said. “And in my opinion, one who is a person of color, or at least someone who actively understands intersectional framework and how to have these culturally important clinical conversations of competence and responsibility to specific communities.”
In the meantime, though, Trevor is led by a straight, white, cisgender woman. Current and former Trevor employees are scratching their heads over how to treat Trevor. Mitchum said that Trevor “has enough of your money” in a tweet and suggested donating to other organizations instead. Others aren’t quite sure.
“It is kind of a fine line with me right now, do I say support the Trevor Project because all these young people are calling in?” a former mid-level employee asked in an interview. “Or do we support other organizations? But this happens all the time. It isn’t specific to Trevor.”
“It’s heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking to see,” Weaver said. “But what can you do? The one lesson that I learned was that at the end of the day, you’re the purpose, it’s not the organization. The mission sticks with the people. And so if the Trevor Project is not going to do it, somebody will.”
Rajski said in a statement that she is committed to supporting the most marginalized LGBTQ+ youth, including transgender and nonbinary youth as well as youth of color.
“I have heard firsthand through the voices of our people that we can do more to help them thrive and do their best work,” she said. “We have listened and are making important investments in our people, our culture, and organizational infrastructure to help Trevor be a sustainable force for good.”
Story courtesy of the Washington Blade via the National LGBTQ Media Association. The National LGBTQ Media Association represents 13 legacy publications in major markets across the country with a collective readership of more than 400K in print and more than 1 million + online. Learn more here: https://nationallgbtmediaassociation.com/