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Online Extra: Gays Across America: Big Brothers Big Sisters abandoned after getting gay grant

by Seth Hemmelgarn

Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Central West Virginia is looking for help after several funders withdrew their support when the charity accepted a grant to do LGBTQ-related work.

Sara McDowell, the group's executive director, said that it accepted $20,000 in pass-through funding from Big Brothers Big Sisters of America to help educate staff on issues that LGBTQ youth face and develop partnerships with other organizations in order to better serve the youth.

Since then, three local foundations have decided to end their support, meaning a loss of up to $80,000.

McDowell said that if it's not able to cover the gap, her organization would have to cut staff, which would ultimately mean that some youth would lose their mentors.

The area BBBS serves in West Virginia faces high rates of poverty, drug use, juvenile incarceration, and dependence on foster care, said McDowell. A high proportion of the state's young people also identify as transgender, she said.

"We have kids who are dying emotionally, intellectually, spiritually and some, like my cousin who committed suicide six years ago - literally," McDowell said in an email to supporters.

For many of the youth the group helps, the mentor is "the one consistent person in their life," and the funding loss is "devastating," especially since youth may feel that they've done something wrong when they learn about losing their mentors, she said in an interview.

Even before this latest development, BBBS has had to make tough decisions on who it can help.

"We get parents that call us, and grandparents and teachers and judges and probation officers," said McDowell. "The first question we have to ask is 'Where are you located?' We just can't do it all."

McDowell, a straight ally and West Virginia native, declined to share the names of the foundations that have withdrawn their support.

"We've chosen not to get into this name shaming thing because our focus is 100 percent on fundraising," she said, adding, "we teach children not to bully, so that would be not following our own advice, so to speak."

McDowell said she learned of the foundations' decisions through "a third party." BBBS has tried to discuss the issue with the foundations, but "we have not been given the courtesy of a dialogue," she said.

The group, which last year had a budget of $309,000, hopes to raise $100,000 soon and $1 million by the end of 2018.

To add to the dilemma, McDowell said, "We think we'll probably lose a few more donors" over the LGBTQ grant, although she doesn't think the potential losses would match what BBBS has already faced.

Donations can be made at http://www.biglittlewv.org/donate .

Pulse memorial
The memorial at Orlando, Florida's gay Pulse nightclub is set to undergo temporary design improvements with the goal of "a more inviting and comfortable venue to reflect and remember the tragedy that occurred" at the site in June 2016 where Omar Mateen fatally shot 49 people and injured 53 others before he died in a shootout with police.

Orlando's City Council approved the interim plans last week after a presentation from club owner and One Pulse Foundation Executive Director Barbara Poma.

"This is an important step toward creating a permanent destination for remembering what happened here, but in a more comforting environment while also initiating an urban renewal effort where one is sorely needed," Poma stated. Several companies "have donated not just their services, but their shared creative spirit to help memorialize the loss of life while also creating place of healing."

The interim memorial will offer spaces where people can leave messages. The Pulse sign that could be seen in worldwide coverage of the massacre would remain, as would the actual nightclub "until a decision is made in the future," according to the foundation.

Fore more information, visit https://onepulsefoundation.org .

Gays Across America is a column addressing LGBTQ issues nationwide. It runs most Tuesdays. Please submit comments or column ideas to Seth Hemmelgarn at (415) 875-9986 or s.hemmelgarn@ebar.com .

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