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Big Brothers Big Sisters loses donations following LGBTQ grant


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Shortly after accepting a grant to help LGTBQ children and teenagers, Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Central West Virginia lost thousands of dollars in promised donations and might have to shut down its Raleigh County program, the organization’s executive director said Thursday.

Sara McDowell said the group lost $60,000 to $80,000 in local grants earmarked primarily for its Beckley-Raleigh County office after plans were announced in September for LGTBQ awareness training for staff members.

“If we do not raise the funds we need quickly, we will have to suspend our program in the Beckley area,” McDowell said. “This has also put a significant fiscal strain on us here in Charleston, because we are having to cover those costs.”

The awareness training grant was provided through the national Big Brothers Big Sisters of America organization, which contacted McDowell’s office in August to see if the organization would be interested.

“I said, ‘Yes, we would be interested,’ especially considering that, earlier this year, UCLA came out with a study that found West Virginia has the highest number of teens who identify themselves as transgendered,” McDowell said.

The training grant, totaling $20,000, was to increase staff awareness of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, McDowell said.

Within days of signing a memorandum of understanding for the training, McDowell said, “we were notified that a representative for several donors wanted to discuss issues we had been previously unaware of.”

The representative, she said, would not reveal what those issues were, but immediately halted any future funding.

“And there are still previous pledged funds that haven’t been paid,” McDowell said.

She would not identify the representative or the organizations that had decided to pull their funding.

“I don’t think the timing is coincidental,” McDowell said. “It is my opinion that the LGBTQ program was not going to be welcomed by the representative for those donors. That’s based on my experience with the donor representative and the conversations I’ve had with others.”

“We’ve had people say their faith and religion would not allow them to support that [training program], and again, we’re not asking anyone to support anything. We want to support kids. We want them to be visible, viable and valued, no matter who they are,” she said.

McDowell said two employees left the Big Brothers Big Sisters office in Beckley around the time the grant was announced, but she said she could not discuss personnel matters or say if any reason was given for the resignations.

Big Brothers Big Sisters serves children and teens who are already considered at-risk for a wide variety of reasons, including poverty, parental substance abuse or incarceration, lack of opportunity and other kinds of adversity.

“LGBTQ kids are at greater risk for attempting suicide, for hate crimes, for bullying,” McDowell said.

Those issues could come up with a mentor, she said, so mentors and staff need to know how to respond appropriately and effectively.

“They may disclose, ‘I think I’m gay,’ or ‘My family has kicked me out because I’m transgender,’ or ‘I’m being bullied every day at school for being different,’ ” McDowell said. “I’m not encouraging a child to be anything other than themselves, but I am wanting to discourage a child from hurting themselves, killing themselves or facing other risk factors.”

Reach Maria Young at [email protected], 304-348-5115 or follow @mariapyoung on Twitter.

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