In Real Life Blog Series: Creating Safe Spaces Through Mentoring

Last Updated by Nancy Rogan on

From Mentor.org,  National Mentoring Partnership
By:  Christian Rummell, Senior Researcher at American Institutes for Research 

January is National Mentoring Month.

Five years ago Big Brothers Big Sisters of Delaware became one of the first mentoring programs in the country to create programming for LGBTQ youth. Responding to documented risks facing this vulnerable group of young people—Family rejectionhomelessnessbullying and harassmentdepressionHIVjuvenile justice involvement, and suicide – BBBS of Delaware recognized that mentors could offer responsive and individualized support that may not otherwise be available.

With support from the Pride Council at the United Way of Delaware, BBBS of Delaware partnered with school GSAs (Gay-Straight Alliances) to match trained “Bigs” with LGBTQ “Littles” in high schools and middle schools across the state.

I interviewed Mary Fox, Executive Director of BBBS Delaware, to learn more about why her agency chose to initiate such groundbreaking services and to hear what advice she would offer other mentoring programs.

Why did you decide to create new mentoring opportunities focused on the needs of LGBTQ youth?

“In 2011, the CDC released a report on Youth Risk Behavior showing that of the Delaware students who reported attempting suicide in the past year, over half of them identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.” Then, as we were in the early stages of developing this program, Delaware experienced a suicide cluster, and we lost 11 young people to suicide within a three month period.   

It was clear that there was an urgent need to reach out to the most vulnerable kids in our state.  While our basic motivation has always been to ensure all kids achieve success in life, I truly believe that our service to LGBTQ kids is about saving lives.

Talk to me about the partnerships that helped to create new programming for this group of young people. Who was involved? What did they bring to the table?

Our partnership with the United Way of Delaware has been integral to our success. They brought together a diverse group of Delawareans to establish a Pride Council and serve as advocates and mentors. They also matched a grant from the Jesse Ball DuPont Fund – originally given to hire a case manager for our LGBTQ initiative – and have continued to provide dedicated funding for the past five years. Most importantly, the United Way DE gives a voice to the importance of supporting LGBTQ youth and opens doors along the way.

How do you see mentoring relationships making a difference for kids that are LGBTQ?

We realized pretty quickly that providing LGBTQ kids with positive, successful adults they could identify with, and who provided them with the simple act of acceptance – was powerful. Having a mentor who is a lawyer, or banker, or carpenter – who is also LGBT, helps our students visualize themselves as successful adults out there in the world – accepted & valued.

Over the past five years of reaching out to youth through school GSA’s, we’ve provided group mentoring support to over 550 students.  Many of these kids have experienced a lack of support or even rejection from other adults in their lives.  In this setting, the mentor can support the students in creating a safe, supportive environment for all students.

What type of support do you give mentors working with this population?

Initially, mentor training consists of a combination of online training modules through BBBSA and in-person group training. Every mentor has a case manager who provides ongoing individual support and training.  We have a designated case manager for our LGBTQ program, who leads these efforts and determines ongoing support and training needs.  In order to provide more in-depth support for our GSA mentors, we are starting something new this school year — bi-monthly group discussion sessions that mentors can attend in-person, via phone or skype. 

What is the most important advice you would give to other programs that are thinking about creating new mentoring opportunities for LGBTQ youth?

social-group-picBe intentional about reaching out to LGBTQ kids, their families and the LGBTQ community. We found that making those connections & identifying our organization as a resource for LGBTQ youth was critical. 

Look for potential partners & allies who can advocate, support, and even provide funding for your efforts. Find out what services & organizations already exist in your community and how you can collaborate. 

This is important work. To me, this is about serving young people facing adversity – and helping ALL kids achieve success. 

With funding from Altria, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America is piloting new program enhancements that will further increase mentoring access to LGBTQ youth across the country.

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