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Sponsors thrilled to support first conference to educate counselors of LGBTQI students

In less than seven days the very first conference focused on educating counselors and educators on the issues of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer / Questioning & Intersex (LGBTQI) youth will be presented here in San Diego.

This conference is for school counselors and educators nationwide and will include a wide range of topics, workshops, speakers and interactive activities. The conference is being run by The Center for Excellence in School Counseling (CESCal), a project which is an off-shoort of the School Counseling Graduate Program at San Diego State University (SDSU). The conference will be held Feb 5 - 7th, at the Mission Valley Hilton.

In this third installment of a four-part series, SDGLN interfaced with some of the many sponsors of this ground-breaking conference, to find out what contribution they feel it will make to the lives of educators, and more importantly, our youth as a whole.

Many of the attendees will be paying their own way, which is reflective of not only the state of the economy, but also the lack of understanding as far as what this conference may offer. In addition, school districts and school boards may, in some cases, be reluctant to put up the funds for something with topics so controversial in today's political climate.

Yet that in itself is the very essence of this conference.....educating the educators about LGBTQI issues.....and to give them the tools which will enable them to be advocates and ears for these often troubled and peer-abused children.

While pulling this story together, SDGLN was assisted by Vincent Pompei, a middle school teacher in the "very conservative" Inland Empire who is a Director of Sponsors and Exhibitors for the conference. Pompei finished his master's degree in School Counseling this past December at Azusa-Pacific University, but does not work for the organization putting on the conference. Despite his non-affiliation and the fullness of his plate, as soon as he heard about it he practically begged to be involved.

According to CESCal founder Dr. Trish Hatch, "we adopted him." His motivation is personal; he himself had experience with hate as a child, and still sees it every day on the campus where he teaches.

"I realized I was gay at a very early age," explained Pompei. "Being 8, 9 or even 15-years-old, and dealing with these feelings all alone can be devastating. The words, faggot, queer, and homo were used frequently at the elementary, middle and high school I attended in Northern California. Every time I heard those words it felt like a bullet shot right through my stomach. I couldn't run home and cry on my mother’s shoulder like other kids do if they were bullied for the clothes that they wore or the freckles on their face. It wasn't uncommon that I would come home from school, go into my room and secretly cry and ask God, why?

"Now that I’m a middle school teacher, it is sad to say that those same exact words are still commonly used on school campuses- and rarely do teachers intervene. There has actually been an increase in anti-gay bulling and rhetoric used on campus since Proposition 8. The kids saw parents protesting on the corner against gay rights and now feel it is acceptable to do the same using these discriminatory terms against their peers."

Because of this, Pompei threw himself into the conference, helping to coordinate sponsorships and exhibitors, and media relations. "I thought I was going to overdo it, but when it comes to helping our youth, for some reason, it doesn't feel like work. Passion kicks in and gives you energy you didn't know you had."

The basic concepts of this conference resonated with many organizations that work hard to educate the public about LGBT issues themselves. Pompei says the sponsors have been just as passionate about their involvement as he is, and he is proud to work with each one. The list of sponsors continues to grow as this story went to print, and includes Lambda Legal, Semper Energy, GLSEN, HRC's Welcoming Schools initiative and these well known organizations:

The Trevor Project

According to a 2006 Massachusetts Youth Risk survey, LGBT youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. For more than 10 years, The Trevor Project has helped save those kids, operating the only accredited, nationwide, around-the-clock crisis and suicide prevention helpline for LGBTQ youth. This is but one of the reasons The Trevor Project is a major sponsor of this conference.

Charles Robbins joined The Trevor Project as Executive Director and CEO in 2007. Since Robbins took the helm, the staff has more than doubled and their annual budget has nearly tripled.

"We are always open to being involved with events that promote the mental health and safety of LGBTQ youth,” said Robbins. “This particular event, which equips school counselors with the information, tools and resources they need to be effective advocates for all students regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, is very much in line with our programmatic goals and initiatives to create and foster safe, accepting and inclusive environments for young people and empower them to become 'lifeguards' for one another.

"This event is important because it is the first national conference to address best practices and crisis intervention techniques to support LGBTQ students. Research shows that LGBTQ students who could identify at least one supportive member of their school's faculty or staff, are more likely to excel academically and pursue higher education than those who cannot identify one such person. That is why this conference is crucial - it emphasizes the necessity of school counselors becoming allies for LGBTQ students and educates them about how they can actively take steps to do so."

Carol Skiljan, a volunteer facilitator for The Trevor Project's new Lifeguard Workshop Program, will be in attendance as a representative of the organization. The Lifeguard Workshop Program not only addresses topics such as sexuality, gender and what it means to feel different, but also teaches young people to recognize symptoms and warning signs of depression and suicidal thoughts, so they can become "lifeguards" and help keep their friends and peers safe. Carol is also the executive director of the Yellow Ribon Suicide Prevention Program, another non-profit focused on saving lives by awareness and education.

The Trevor Project is the leading national organization focused on crisis and suicide prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth. Every day, The Trevor Project saves young lives through its free and confidential helpline, in-school workshops, educational materials, online resources and advocacy. The organization was founded in 1998 by three filmmakers whose film, Trevor, a comedy/drama about a gay teenager who attempts suicide, received the 1994 Academy Award® for Best Short Film (Live Action). For more information, visit TheTrevorProject.org.

PFLAG, San Diego Chapter

The local chapter of PFLAG has been around almost as long as the national organization, and they were even quicker on the draw to get the first web domain, pflag.com. (The national organization has pflag.org).

PFLAG’s mission is to support, educate, and advocate for the LGBT community, especially for LGBT daughters and sons and is one of San Diego’s oldest LGBT organizations. Their main efforts go into their five support groups around San Diego County, their annual college scholarship program, and their PFLAG parent panels.

Ron Goetz, a member of the local chapter's Board of Directors said they understood the importance of the CESCaL conference immediately and got right on board.

"This year’s CESCaL conference is focused on LGBTQI issues, [and is] the first school counselor’s conference to ever devote an entire conference to sexual minority students,” said Goetz. “Our concern for healthy families includes keeping kids alive! So this was a natural fit with our core mission, especially when it comes to the most vulnerable people in our community--LGBT teens. It was a no-brainer. LGBT young people are eight times more likely to suffer from severe depression and four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. This has to stop. School counselors are first-line responders in this epidemic of despair."

PFLAG is making two panel presentations at the conference. One panel will be made up of PFLAG parents describing how their sons and/or daughters came out, how they responded, and what it’s like to have LGBT kids. The other panel is a Transgender Family panel, with Transgender young people and their parents sharing their difficult stories.

"The trans-parents are fierce advocates with doctors and school administrators, [and are] an impressive bunch of people,” adds Goetz. "We’ve seen a lot of progress for LGBT equality recently, but this work will be necessary for a long time. The fight against oppression and bigotry is central to the story of America. PFLAG is in this struggle for the long haul."

Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, Inc. is a support, education and advocacy organization. Founded in 1981 by 25 parents, PFLAG now represents more than 75,000 households, and speaks for thousands of others. PFLAG affiliates are located in more than 400 communities throughout the United States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and 11 other countries. PFLAG is a tax exempt, non-profit organization that is not affiliated with any political or religious institution. Visit the local chapter's website at www.pflag.com

Cross-Cultural Center, Division of Student Affairs, San Diego State University

Dr. Hatch and her graduate students have realized a great amount of support for this conference on the campus of SDSU. One of the staunchest supporters has been Dr. Tanis Starck, Director of the Office of Intercultural Relations / Cross-Cultural Center. There, the students are further developed into leaders prepared to address and advocate for the underserved and underrepresented both locally and internationally. LGBTQI youth fall directly into these categories.

"We confront all forms of oppression and promote understanding of intersecting identities that include, but are not limited to, race, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, sex, culture, age, ability, class, spirituality and body image," said Dr. Starck. "To this end, our office offers resources and programs to inspire a student-centered diverse community."

The Cross-Cultural Center regularly sponsors events relating to diversity and gets involved with the LGBTQ community on various levels through sponsorships, fundraising, and seminars- both on campus and off. They are also conducting their own conference at SDSU in May, entitled the Queer People of Color Conference.

They have also implemented the first cultural competency certificate program at SDSU. Throughout the workshop series students will learn how to communicate and interact with people that differ from themselves as well as explore many facets of intercultural, gender issues and promote students' acceptance of others through. "Our program aims to make members from all diverse communities feel that they have a place and that they are openly acknowledged," said Dr. Starck.

Dr. Starck will be in attendance at the CESCal conference to show her support. There will also be an Office of Intercultural Relations table in the exhibition area, with staff available to answer questions from the public. "We hope all educators strongly consider attending this conference, as it has a lot to offer," she said.

The Office of Intercultural Relations researches, designs and implements unique programs that promote the appreciation of cultural diversity and fosters intercultural and cross-cultural understanding. Intercultural Relations provides programs and services that support the academic mission of the University by enhancing the educational, personal, cultural, and social development of students. Intercultural Relations strives to build positive advocacy and collaborative relationships with the general student body with a special emphasis towards underrepresented student populations. Please visit their website at http://www.sa.sdsu.edu/intercultural/index.html

Pompei is proud to work with each of the sponsors and says they are all as passionate about the conference as he is and is convinced this conference will have a huge impact for years to come.

"Many very educated counselors and teachers have amazing and compassionate hearts for all kids, but most of them will admit they don't know very much about this topic or how they can effectively intervene and minimize the negative statistics that are associated with today's LGBT youth,” concludes Polmpei.

"Counselors and teachers often use the famous phrase, 'education is the key' with students. I believe it is the phrase that we now need to use for our educators on this particular topic. This conference is just the beginning. We need to keep motivated and keep these conversations going because there is a lot of work to be done and change that still needs to take place."