Spill the Tea Cafe in Kakaako offers a place for teens to find support

Feb. 19—The combination cafe /clinic welcomes all adolescents (ages 11 to 18 ) regardless of their sexual identities.

Throughout middle school, Jasper Ho was severely bullied by other students as he began to explore his sexual identity.

"I just knew that I wasn't like the other girls my age and it was just after puberty ; I started hating my body. I felt like an outsider, " said Ho, who grew up on Oahu. He cut his hair really short in the eighth grade, and began binding his chest and wearing boys' clothes at 14.

"I didn't really come out till I was about 16, " he said.

Now at 18, he identifies as a transgender man.

Counselors at school did little to help with the harassment and Ho struggled with mental health issues. Last summer, he started hanging out at the new Spill the Tea Cafe in Kakaako, and his life turned around. The nonprofit was opened in March by Haylin Dennison, a mental health therapist, to give troubled kids a safe place to be themselves and obtain counseling.

She was inspired to do so by her own transgender child Mattie, now 14, who faced similar problems with transitioning into a boy. Dennison and Mattie had found few resources to help them deal with the bullying, social stigma and emotional turmoil of being transgender, and it became a calling for Dennison to provide aid to kids and their parents.

The combination cafe /clinic welcomes all adolescents (ages 11 to 18 ) regardless of their sexual identities. It was Mattie's idea to open a place that was cool, fun and provides free boba tea where kids can meet after school and on weekends. Services include individual and group therapy, mentorship and care coordination, but kids can also just play games or study.

"I was hoping to create a safe space for people just to hang out with friends, somewhere kids could easily access mental health services, " he said. Mattie chose the name, Spill the Tea, referring to the slang term that means to talk about your feelings, "kinda like spill the beans."

Ho, who is now studying psychology at a university in British Columbia, Canada, said he started going to the cafe to meet other trans kids after graduating from high school. "It was nice to know there were others similar to me, " he said.

Ho soon spent all his free time there and started group therapy, later receiving individual counseling to deal with self harm and suicidal tendencies. Sometimes his parents joined him to work out grievances they didn't discuss at home due to communication problems.

"It was really important for me to have Haylin and the interns at the cafe because it was the first time I had really talked about the bullying I had gone through, because most of my other friends just couldn't relate to it, " Ho said. "I was worried if I told other adults ... they'd blame it on me. But having people say no, it wasn't your fault, that shouldn't have happened to you, it was really important in my recovery."

Ho said school counselors had given him advice such as : "Boys will be boys ; you should develop a thicker skin. You can't blame it on them ; you make it pretty obvious, meaning : If you want them to stop bullying you, you should just act straight."

Dennison said the cafe has served over 100 kids and their families, with six part-time counselors and several teen mentors. Insurance is accepted, and those who are uninsured are covered by donors. About 15 kids gather daily on average, but weekends attract many more. Quite a few suffer from depression or have been homeless in the past because of conflicts with family members, she said.

Dennison is open about how difficult it was for her to accept that Mattie was transgender, and can provide personal insight while counseling parents, she said.

"Mattie came out in the fifth grade (he's in the ninth grade now ). ... I had difficulty with it myself, because, No. 1, I questioned myself : Did I do something wrong to make Mattie this way ?" Dennison said. "The most difficult thing about it is you automatically know that your child is going to go through pain and have a harder life than most people.

"I want parents to get to know their child in an authentic way. ... They can't expect their child to do and be exactly as they want them to be, " or what their parents, family and society believe they should be, she said.

"I grew up in a very Christian, conservative household, a standard local family " in which problems were never discussed, but ignored, she said. When Mattie came out as trans, Dennison had hoped it was just a phase, or Mattie wanting to fit in with the crowd, but "to be honest, I didn't want to deal with my own family."

The turning point came when she finally allowed Mattie to cut his hair really short in the seventh grade after refusing permission for years.

"I'd never seen Mattie so happy. His eyes really lit up and he just felt far more like himself. He told me he didn't want to disappoint me. Even though I was a supportive mom and therapist, he felt I was ashamed of him, " she said. When Dennison wouldn't let him wear clothes with LGBT Pride logos to church, she said she later learned Mattie took it to mean his mother was trying to hide parts of his identity. "I was in tears. I felt like the worst mom. I was heartbroken he held that in for two years."

She made a hard decision to talk to her family and advocate for her child. In a gentle but firm manner, she told her family that if they could not respect Mattie's boundaries, "we just would not be coming over anymore. None of my parents ever said Mattie is going to hell or anything ; it's really been so life-changing, and I'm really happy Mattie had the courage to tell me how he felt and I had the courage to talk to my family.

"I just want other kids to see stories like Mattie's, " she said. In spite of the challenges, Mattie is thriving more than ever, Dennison said.

Mattie, who helps out at the cafe when needed, said he's glad the place has turned out as he'd imagined. He hopes Spill the Tea can expand its services because other social agencies have long waiting lists of kids who need help.