Big Brothers Big Sisters, LGBTQ Center work together to recruit, train mentors

In the world of Big Brothers Big Sisters, “Bigs” is the term for the adult mentors and “Littles” is the word for the children and teens being mentored.

But both groups figure to benefit because of a newly official partnership between the LGBTQ Center OC and the mentoring organization Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County and the Inland Empire.

Unlike some other high-profile youth support programs, Big Brothers Big Sisters has never weeded out adult volunteers because of sexual orientation. Mentors are chosen, and welcomed, based on their commitment to being a consistent presence in the life of a young person.

But the reach of the LGBTQ Center could boost the ranks of adults who are willing to serve as role models and sounding boards for a growing number of young people who identify as LGBTQ+. The Center will provide specific cultural training, educational workshops and other outreach to the staff of Big Brothers Big Sisters, as well as to parents and guardians of children in the program, and to current Big Brother Big Sister mentors who are not LGBTQ+ but might be matched to a young person who is.

This is happening, in part, because parents are asking for that help, said Laura Corona-Marcum, vice president of programs for the regional organization.

Last year, the group served 4,398 young people, ages 6 to 24, in Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. And while Big Brothers Big Sisters doesn’t keep statistics on the percentage of young people in the program who identify as LGBTQ+, Corona-Marcum said anecdotal evidence — and requests for mentoring — suggests the number is growing.

“Our families are being more open about the needs of their children,” she said.

But being eager to help isn’t the same as being equipped to provide it. Many parents and guardians, Corona-Marcum said, don’t know where to start when it comes to issues of a child’s sexual orientation.

“They’ll say ‘My child needs a positive role model. I’m coming to you for guidance.’”

Good match

Big Brothers Big Sisters and the LGBTQ Center have worked together informally in the past. This year, the organizations’ relationship became more intentional. There’s no contract involved, but there will be a planned, mutual exchange of expertise and guidance — Big Brothers Big Sisters knows about mentoring and the LGBTQ Center is a trusted source for information and outreach in a community it has served for 50 years.

For the LGBTQ Center, the timing could not have been better. Board members recently have been discussing ways to build a mentorship program, said Peg Corley, executive director.

“Our youth often do not have positive role models,” Corley said. “It’s a common issue.”

Big Brother Big Sisters approached the Center earlier this year with the idea of launching an LGBTQ mentoring program, but Corley said “we wanted to be sure the mentoring would be affirming.” So to insure that, she said, the Center will provide ongoing training on cultural competency and use of terminology, along with making sure related marketing is inclusive.

“I feel good about it and here’s why: They are making sure they’re getting the training from the source … the local boots on the ground.”

The first in a series of information sessions about becoming a Big Brothers Big Sisters volunteer took place in early July, via a Zoom session hosted by the LGBTQ Center. Of the 13 participants, nine were people curious about mentoring. They heard from Big Brothers Big Sisters representative Joe Padilla and from a Big who is gay, Riverside resident Steve Guzman.

Padilla explained that about 40 mentors already in the program are members of the LGBTQ community. Not all are matched with LGBTQ youth. Big Brothers Big Sisters is up front with parents about the sexual orientation of potential mentors, and all parties must be comfortable before a match can proceed. Compatibility and commitment, Padilla said, are the key characteristics the organization looks for.

“We really want to set the match up to succeed from the beginning.”

A non-issue

Guzman, 36, has been matched to his Little — a 9-year-old boy who lives in Santa Ana — for nearly three years. Guzman, who grew up in Santa Ana and recently moved to Riverside from Anaheim, said he became connected with Big Brothers Big Sisters when a cousin, a high school recruiter for the organization, observed how well Guzman got along with his young nieces and nephews and suggested he volunteer.

Guzman had never heard of Big Brothers Big Sisters and wondered how welcoming the organization would be to a gay man. While Big Brothers Big Sisters carefully vets all mentors to make sure children are safe, the adult’s sexual orientation isn’t a factor in that evaluation.

“We never cherry picked our youth, or our participants,” program director Corona-Marcum said. “So long as they are committed to a consistent, healthy mentorship, our doors are open to all.”

The parents of the boy Guzman would be matched with had no issues either. They had been informed by Big Brothers Big Sisters that Guzman was gay, and they were given the option of asking for a different mentor. Guzman said he was surprised the parents — who he described as a hardworking, Spanish-speaking couple with nine children and little free time — didn’t care about his sexual orientation. He said he was raised in a traditional Latino family, and hid his sexuality because being gay was frowned upon.

The message Guzman got at home, and at church, kept him from telling anyone what he’d known about himself since kindergarten. He grew up wondering if he was going to go to hell, thinking that his homosexuality made him a bad person. He buried himself in comic books, especially the mutant superheroes of the X-Men series. While his parents and family ended up accepting him for who he is — a now married, gay man — Guzman said he wishes he’d had the kind of role model that LGBTQ+ youth can now find in pop culture, places like The Center OC, and in an organization like Big Brothers Big Sisters.

“I just want every kid out there, gay or straight, to feel like they’re normal, like they belong.”

But Guzman also said he was worried about being rejected as a mentor, and how he’d feel if that happened.

“I had finally broken free of that stigma and darkness of not being accepted. I didn’t want to go back to that. I thought twice about it.”

But he found that Big Brothers Big Sisters is diligent about making its mentors feel comfortable.

“They never put you in a position where the kid won’t like you, or the parents won’t accept you, because you are gay,” Guzman said.

“As much as they support the child, they also want to show that same support to the Big.”

In 2018, the year he joined, Guzman was asked if he wanted to ride on the Big Brothers Big Sisters float in the gay pride parade held in Santa Ana.

“I was like, ‘Wait, you guys have a float in the Pride parade?’ It just felt so great.”

Guzman didn’t talk about his sexuality with the boy he’s been mentoring, but he recently learned his Little has known all along. The boy’s parents had told him. But the topic never came up for discussion because it’s not a big deal to the boy, who, Guzman said, is heterosexual.

“He never cared,” Guzman said.

“I think that’s so beautiful that kids these days, they don’t care.”

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