Donors to a Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter in West Virginia recently pulled $80,000 in funding after the chapter signed up for an LGBTQ awareness training program, according to the chapter's executive director.
Sara McDowell, head of Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Central West Virginia, told NBC News her organization cannot fill two vacancies or match any additional students to volunteer mentors until it makes up the lost funding. The chapter currently serves 34 children aged 6 to 11 in the area impacted by the loss of funds.
McDowell said it all started in September when her Big Brother Big Sisters chapter received a year-long $20,000 grant for a program to train staff on issues pertaining to LGBTQ youth. Soon after accepting the grant, however, she said a representative of three donor foundations halted funding to the organization and has not fulfilled a donation pledge made last year.
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McDowell declined to name the donor representative, citing a desire not to "name and shame" the person. “We tried to have an open dialogue, and it just wasn’t reciprocated,” McDowell explained.
Since posting a statement about the pulled donations late last month, the West Virginia chapter has raised more than $30,000 from other donors, including an $11,000 grant from Broadway Cares. But while McDowell praised the support the group has received over the past few weeks, she said her Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter will be limited in its ability to support underprivileged youth in the area until it makes up all the lost donations.
McDowell said she was motivated to have her staff partake in the awareness training program because of the need for increased sensitivity to LGBTQ issues in West Virginia.
Besides a September incident in nearby Clay County, where a bus driver allegedly verbally assaulted an openly gay teen, McDowell cited a report released earlier this year that found West Virginia has a higher percentage of transgender students than any other state in the country.
According to the report, which was released by UCLA School of Law's Williams Institute, the percentage of children between the ages of 13 and 17 who identify as transgender is somewhere between 0.5 and 1 percent nationally. In West Virginia, the report found, that number may be as high as 1.9 percent.
For McDowell, the need for an awareness program is also personal: Her cousin, a gay man, committed suicide six years ago.
“This was a 46 year-old man. Imagine if you’re 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 or older and you’re not really sure how to articulate how you feel, and you’re hearing all of this stuff around you,” she said. “This is partly so that no else feels that sense of isolation or despair.”