Mentor Jonathan Elyea and mentee Manny Tsang met in 2013 by way of the KGLRC Triangle Mentorship Program. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Elyea

KGLRC Mentorship Program Provides Positive Role Models for LGBTQ Youth

BY KATE OPALEWSKI

As the executive director of the Kalamazoo Gay and Lesbian Resource Center, Jay Maddock said he frequently hears from LGBTQ youth that "they don't have positive role models or they don't know adults who can relate to their experiences as an LGBTQ adolescent."

In response, the KGLRC established the Triangle Mentorship Program to help meet the needs of those young people. Maddock said the program, established in 2011, pairs an LGBTQ youth with an LGBTQ adult to provide them with support, resources and a connection to the community.

"What we've seen from youth participating in the program is an increased sense of self-worth, increased confidence and an overall increased positive outlook of their future," he said.

As the director of programs, Michael Cleggs Jr. is responsible for matching mentors and mentees who meet monthly with one another and quarterly with other groups in the program. Enrollment forms are accepted anytime throughout the year.

Since the program began, Maddock said there have been more than 100 participants, most of whom maintain their mentor/mentee relationship for several years.

Like Jonathan Elyea and Manny Tsang. The pair met in 2013 and still hang out today at their leisure. While they have visited places together such as the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, the Renaissance Fair, and self-defense class, their go-to spot is the Grand Traverse Pie Company.

"Talking to Jon provides stability in my life," said Tsang, 16, a self-proclaimed introvert who met Elyea during a time when he said things were "rocky" and he lacked "order."

While in the eighth grade, Tsang admits he wasn't the most socially adept person.

"He was a tough nut to crack. It took a while at first, but I was familiar with Manny's behavior and can totally relate," said Elyea, a 38-year-old graduate from Western Michigan University who lives with his husband, Dave, in Kalamazoo.

"In the same way where I'm not quick to open up to people I don't know, Manny wasn't either. I understood that it would take time and I didn't really know what to expect," he said, pointing to their hometown of Portage where the population is less diverse.

"Things have gotten a lot better, but it's shocking how little people know about the LGBTQ community."

The pair has successfully navigated the mentorship experience on their own.

"When I was in high school in the '90s, it was like the Dark Ages. There was no internet resource for things if you wanted LGBTQ information. You had to seek it out," said Elyea, who has some older mentors of his own.

"My husband and I hang out with a lot of gay seniors. Aside from being fascinating, it really enriches your life."

Which is what Tsang is quickly learning by spending time with Elyea.

"It's not just about being gay and living, but it's also about being an adult. Just having somebody who understands the problems of being gay in high school that you can talk to about it and relate to," he said.

In his junior year at Portage Northern High School, Tsang said it's "still hard being a gay teen. I stick out. I'm not really the average gay person. I'm kind of friendless and lonely."

The high school offers a gay-straight alliance, but Tsang said it's "not his scene" and his relationship with Elyea has helped make high school "survivable" at this point.

Elyea makes it clear that "we're not dealing with crises. We're just talking about life and where we're at. Manny has a good head on his shoulders. He is way ahead of where I was at his age. My life was different from what Manny is experiencing, but we're here for each other."

Interested LGBTQ youth and LGBTQ adults can email Cleggs at michael@kglrc.org for a registration form. The KGLRC is located at 629 Pioneer St., Kalamazoo. Visit the center online for more information.


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