Big Brothers Big Sisters Pioneers TransMentoring Program

We tend to characterize childhood as a carefree phase of life, a blissful time before the responsibilities of a job, taxes, or car payments bring the weight of the world down upon our shoulders. It’s true, childhood can be full of joy and laughter, but growing up is also hard. School can be stressful, both academically and socially, life at home is rarely perfect, and we often grapple with our own identity well into our 20’s. The majority of the children and youth served by Big Brothers Big Sisters Santa Cruz County live in poverty and many come from single parent homes. Big Brothers Big Sisters acknowledges all these challenges, and our local Santa Cruz affiliate is also showing the nation how openly recognizing the question of gender identity can make all the difference in the world for children.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Santa Cruz County (BBBS) has always been open and inclusive, striving to ensure that every child feels welcome in the program and is comfortable being themselves. As one of 38 affiliates taking part in the LGBTQ mentoring initiative pilot program, the organization is taking a more thoughtful approach to issues of gender identity and fluidity. They’re carefully choosing the language they use when communicating with Littles (the youth they serve) and Bigs (the adults who volunteer as mentors), adapting their interview and training process, and making small changes to the office environment, like the addition of trans and rainbow flags at the front desk and pronoun guides and other signs of acceptance.

The first of its kind

In 2015, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Santa Cruz County started their official TransMentoring Program, matching trans-children/youth with trans-adult mentors — the first BBBS program of its kind. “We’re very lucky to live where we do,” says Executive Director Marie L. Cubillas. “We’ve had no pushback.”

In fact, it was the community that came to BBBS in the first place asking them to start the program. Stuart Rosenstein of the Queer Youth Task Force and Ben Geilhufe came to BBBS with the idea for a program that matched trans-Littles with trans-Bigs. With the additional help of Heidi Koronkowski, local mom and founder of the TransFamily Support Group of Santa Cruz County, they’ve matched six children with six adult mentors and have updated their volunteer training program to address gender identity. (In total, BBBS of Santa Cruz County currently has 87 open, or active, matches and 66 Littles waiting for a match.)
Learning to support Littles as they explore their gender identity
The TransMentoring Program includes updated training for board, volunteers, and staff that helps those involved with BBBS understand and talk openly and sensitively about gender identity and fluidity.
“Being involved with this [LGBTQ] initiative has made us more mindful of covering this topic, presenting it to mentors and parents,” says Program Manager Soledad Arciga-Alvarado. “We want to make sure everyone who comes to us knows we are welcoming to everybody.”

Spreading awareness amongst the community that BBBS of Santa Cruz County is truly open to all children and adults may be the most important piece of the new program. The outreach they conduct is intentional and aims to engage more trans children and mentors. One Santa Cruz Little who identified as female when he first entered the program was able to come out to a BBBS case manager as trans because he knew he’d be supported.

“They were a little bit concerned because this was a female-to-female match and this Little was no longer identifying as female,” explains Arciga-Alvarado. “But just knowing that we have this trans match program and knowing that we support all Littles and mentors throughout the course of them changing, if needed, they were able to come out and tell us. They felt so relieved that we weren’t going to close their match. Just knowing that I won’t lose a service just because I’m happy with who I am and starting to share that with others is huge.”

“Or having to hide,” adds Cubillas. “Who wants to hide who we are?”

Even though the Santa Cruz organization is one of the smallest BBBS organizations with just two full-time and one part-time staff member providing bilingual services, their TransMentoring Program has become a model for other BBBS affiliates across the nation for what is possible. BBBS staff from other states are calling Cubillas to ask, ‘How can we do this at our organization?’ And, ‘How do you get your leadership within the organization on board?’

“We’re the little engine that could,” says Cubillas. “And small steps is how we’re getting there. One of those small steps was that Little coming out to us as trans.”

Small steps, life-changing impact

The small steps that Cubillas and her team of dedicated staff and volunteers are making are adding up to life-changing impacts for Santa Cruz County youth. One girl had the confidence to tell a BBBS case manager she was trans simply because she saw a handkerchief-sized blue, pink and white trans flag mounted on the front desk. She is now matched with a trans mentor. “With this child in particular this has been a life saving thing,” says Cubillas. “Just having a little flag out … it can be that simple and easy.”

One of the first trans matches has lasted through an international move. Even though they’re thousands of miles apart, the mom, Big Sister, and Little Sister still stay in touch regularly through Skype. They’ve maintained the relationship outside of BBBS because the mom realized she couldn’t provide the support her daughter needed like someone who was living her experience.

“Being a part of Big Brothers Big Sisters has been a transformative, healing experience for our family. Our daughter not only has someone whose focus is solely on her, but she also has someone with whom she can discuss things we simply do not have answers to, and for those of us who are dealing with broken relationships with family members as a result of being ‘out’ our match has been a balm.”

- Mother of a BBBS Little

Challenges & goals for the year ahead

The two biggest challenges BBBS of Santa Cruz County faces in the year ahead are ones they’re all too familiar with: recruiting volunteers and raising enough funding. The $20,000 grant from the Community Foundation will largely support the TransMentoring Program, and help ensure all new and existing volunteers receive the updated training. Their goal with the grant funding is to serve 10% more youth than last year and to provide the new training for the 43 additional volunteers required to meet that goal. It won’t be easy getting all existing, long-term mentors up to speed, however.

“We’re utilizing the monthly check-ins in the first year [of the match] or quarterly check-ins for those longer than a year,” says Arciga-Alvarado, “but we would ideally like to have something in person. There’s a big difference between doing ongoing training via email or phone communication than to actually sitting down together in one room. You can take a lot more from those interactions versus remote interactions.”

As the program expands and evolves, this will be an ongoing challenge given the staff’s limited time with their mentors. “To get mentors to come together for a 4-hour training on a Saturday … that’s difficult,” says Cubillas. This means the organization will get creative to meet their goals.

“With the limited time that we have,” asks Arciga-Alvarado, “how can we create the best kind of training to ensure that we cover as much as we want and need to cover, and have as many people have access to it as possible?”

BBBS is always looking for more volunteers so that youth in need of a mentor can get matched more quickly. Currently, Littles can be on the waitlist for over a year. Fortunately, once on the waitlist, the families immediately begin receiving BBBS services. “As soon as we enroll families and children into our program they’re receiving our services,” says Arciga-Alvarado. “They get invited to all of our events, have access to resources and referrals, but we want to make that transition a lot shorter.”

Cubillas encourages anyone with an interest in becoming a Big Sister or Big Brother to give the Agency a call (831-464-8691) or fill out an application on their website. “One thing that I hear from all of our volunteers is, ‘I wish I would have started doing this when I started thinking about it. I’ve gotten more out of this than I think my Little has,’” she says. “These are incredible relationships. Making a difference can be easy and it can be really fun.”

For more stories of nonprofit impact, subscribe to our eNewsletter.

Sign up