LINCOLN PARK — For many members of the LGBT community in Chicago, a safe place to open up is often the bar, but a group of activists and school staff hope to change that for teens at Lincoln Park High School.
The dean of the high school is heading a mentor program, which pairs recent university graduates with LGBT teens at the high school to help them deal with issues such as bullying and how and whether to come out to their families while still in their teens.
"It's not just that it gets better, but it's what are we doing for the students now," said Nico Lang, a DePaul University graduate student and blogger for WBEZ-FM. "How are we helping it get better now?"
There are no similar programs in the city, lest the country, Lang said, and he hopes the model could expand city-wide and serve as an example across the country.
The first meeting was held at the school in mid-April and drew an even greater attendance than the organizers anticipated, leaving them in search of more mentors. Ideally the mentors would be college-age or recent college graduates.
The program is a joint effort between the Civil Rights Agenda and the high school. Mentors will not only meet with the students at the once-a-month meetings, but are expected to provide support outside the classroom.
"I can run to Boystown or Andersonville and parts of Rogers Park and have a safe space. To be gay in Chicago is to be 21 and be in a bar," said 23-year-old Zach Stafford, who is helping run the program. "Programs like this are taking into account that there aren’t a lot of places for younger people."
For young open gay men such as Lang and Stafford, the program is something they wished was available in their high schools.
"Sitting in the room with those kids and hearing the class bells ring, it made me nostalgic and think 'Wow, I could have never had this.'" said Stafford, who grew up in Tennessee.
The first meeting of the group focused heavily on how to react to bullying in the hallways of the high school, according to the organizers.
Many students had never had the opportunity to hear from peers who had gone through similar harassment just years earlier, or even spoken with anyone before, Lang said.
A specific question raised by a number of students was how to react to homosexual slurs in the Lincoln Park hallways.
A DePaul University student who is a mentor told the teen to respond to it by twirling.
"I thought that was a beautiful moment," Lang said. "How to turn pain into something beautiful."
Anyone who is interested in being a mentor can interview from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday at the Civil Rights Agenda, 2129 N Western Ave. Interested mentors should bring a resume and cover letter.
The organizers are looking for mentors who are college-age or recent graduates to relate with the students.
"We don’t want to have just anyone come. These kids deserve more than just anyone," Stafford said. "We are trying to match mentors up with similar races, similar interests, from similar parts of town presenting a full range of their identities not just one."