Metro Weekly

SMYAL Board of Directors Appoints Erin Whelan as Executive Director

Whelan, the former director of housing and homeless services at a Texas nonprofit, will start in her new role on September 1.

Erin Whelan – Photo courtesy of Erin Whelan.

The Board of Directors of Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders, the D.C.-area nonprofit that provides support services and leadership opportunities to LGBTQ youth, has named Erin Whelan, a licensed professional counselor and licensed child care administrator with experience in the nonprofit world, as the organization’s newest executive director.

Whelan, who has nearly 20 years of experience in nonprofit management, previously served as the director of housing and homeless services at LifeWorks, an Austin-based service provider for LGBTQ youth in Texas, where she oversaw a program with a $11.5 million budget.

Given that SMYAL’s programs, staff, and budget have grown exponentially over the past five years, Whelan brings substantial experience working in the nonprofit sector. As director of housing and homeless services at LifeWorks, she has experience working with the Homeless Response System in Austin and the National Movement to End Youth Homelessness. In that role, she was responsible for growing her division’s budget, launching four new programs, and increasing staffing by 40%. 

Beginning on Sept. 1, Whelan will take over the helm of SMYAL from Daniel Penchina, who became the group’s interim executive director earlier this year, succeeding former Executive Director Sultan Shakir, who is currently serving as president and executive officer of Philadelphia’s Mazzoni Center, a health care advocacy organization and service provider for the LGBTQ community.

“Erin Whelan is a compassionate and strong leader who I am confident is the right person to lead SMYAL,” Rob Cogorno, the chair of SMYAL’s Board of Directors, said in a statement. “I could not be more proud of the tremendous growth in services for our LGBTQ youth and of the SMYAL staff’s hard work that made that growth possible. Erin’s extensive experience in service to youth in need and her passion for that work will help guide SMYAL in continuing its excellent work in this challenging time for LGBTQ youth in our region and across the country.”

Whelan takes over the helm of SMYAL at a time when LGBTQ youth — and those who provide support for them — are under attack from politicians seeking to reduce the visibility of LGBTQ youth, censor their speech and freedom of expression, and restrict their access to gender-affirming health care and ability to participate in school-sponsored athletic events.

As such, SMYAL’s various support groups and activity programs for different age groups, mental health services, transitional housing for homeless youth, and leadership training programs are vital to LGBTQ youth looking for an affirming space where they will not be judged or ostracized due to their identities.

Whelan will also oversee SMYAL’s operations as the organization prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2024. 

Community members will have the chance to meet Whelan at SMYAL’s upcoming Fall Brunch, SMYAL’s largest annual fundraising event, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary and will take place at the Marriott Marquis in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, Sept. 24.


“I am beyond excited and honored to join SMYAL as the new executive director,” Whelan said in a statement. “My work has been committed to understanding and seeing the world through the lens of the most marginalized youth and young adults and being a fierce advocate for LGBTQ youth.

“I believe all LGBTQ youth deserve an opportunity to build a life they love and a chance to feel celebrated and affirmed for exactly who they are and strive to be,” added Whelan. “From the moment I stepped into the SMYAL community, it felt like exactly where I wanted to be. SMYAL creates a community for queer and trans youth where they can feel radically accepted and safe to step into their true selves.”

SMYAL’s annual Fall Brunch will take place on Saturday, Sept. 24 at the Marriott Marquis in Washington, 901 Massachusetts Ave. NW. For more information, visit For more information on SMYAL’s programs, visit

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