Valley Parents: Group Bridges Gap for LBGT Teens

  • Photographed outside the Remsen Medical Sciences Building in Hanover, N.H., on April 29, 2016, Geisel School of Medicine students Ana Rodriguez-Villa and Brendin Beaulieu-Jones are the founders of Bridges, a peer-driven LGBT support group based at The Junction in White River Junction, Vt. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, May 05, 2016

White River Junction — The teens attending a monthly session of Bridges, a peer support group for LGBT teens, were asked to choose a side of the room based on their response to the statement, “I feel comfortable in my own skin.”

The results were telling.

“Overwhelmingly, the group went to the side that said ‘I don’t agree with that; I don’t feel comfortable in my own skin,’ ” said Ana Rodriguez-Villa, a second-year Geisel School of Medicine student and a co-leader of the group.

She and Brendin Beaulieu-Jones, also a second-year med student at Geisel, co-founded the group last April as part of the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, a fellowship for students to create and carry out sustainable community service projects.

Their goal was to “create a safe space for peers to connect with each other, as well as to explore their own identity and to obtain some of the tools with which to become more confident and comfortable with your identity,” said Beaulieu-Jones, of Connecticut.

The two had discovered that there were limited opportunities for LGBT teens in the Upper Valley to come together and reflect on their identities.

“I think both of us are very aware that this population is especially at risk for many different health issues, personal and physical,” said Rodriguez-Villa, of Boston.

“We felt through conversations, and through various experiences of our own in this area, that there weren’t too many resources for youth, whether that be about health education or just simply a social space — a space for reflection and discussion about identity.”

Henry Lang, public relations officer for The Council at Hanover High School, said he was proud of his school’s inclusivity of LGBT students.

Hanover High’s Rainbow Alliance club, of which Lang is “an avid ally,” is active throughout the year.

“We have a smaller group of dedicated students and teachers who plan events, but we receive tremendous support from the school community,” he said.

Lang hopes Hanover High and The Council’s work “will set a precedent for our neighboring schools.”

“Having been a part of the Dartmouth and Upper Valley community for the past seven years, I was aware that this was an at-risk population for which support is not optimized. I saw first hand some of the challenges associated with identifying as LGBT and the isolation that accompanies it,” said Beaulieu-Jones, who also is a Dartmouth College alumnus.

As Schweitzer fellows, Rodriguez-Villa and Beaulieu-Jones have developed a curriculum for training first- and second-year medical students to work with LGBT individuals in a clinical setting.

The goal is to have new Geisel students take on the responsibility of leading Bridges every year.

“Our plan is that there will be new leaders every year, but that the mission and the contents of the group will remain the same and we have — wonderfully — a commitment from the leaders at The Junction (Teen Center in White River Junction) to support the program moving forward,” Rodriguez-Villa said.

Each 90-minute monthly meeting integrates communication and coping skills into team-building exercises, activities and games.

“We really are trying to be in tune with what the kids want,” Beaulieu-Jones said. “We don’t want to do something that’s over-reflective; we just want to create a safe space for them to connect and socialize.”

Group discussions are geared toward accepting one’s own identity — and also embracing a group identity — while understanding that others have experienced the same struggle.

“The students pretty quickly find that they’re going through similar things and they get an idea that their classmates, their friends, are experiencing things and have similar thoughts,” Beaulieu-Jones said. “It could be (something) intimate, in terms of coming out and having conversations with parents and I think ... the teens can find that common line, and they don’t think that exists. They think that no one else is like them. That’s what I think is so powerful about this group.”

Witnessing LGBT teens realize that they aren’t alone and that others in the Bridges peer group have shared similar experiences has been a rewarding part of leading the group for Rodriguez-Villa.

“Moments that have really stuck with us are when members have been especially vulnerable or open and honest with the group and I think we’ve had some really poignant moments of that,” she said.

“People are really, sometimes for the first time, realizing that what they’ve been experiencing privately, other people have been experiencing too. And those (moments) are really touching, and challenging, to see that these struggles are universal … at different ages, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity. These struggles are common for multiple people and I think when students recognize that. ... they feel less alone.”

The group currently consists mainly of Hartford-area teens, but is looking to expand to the surrounding communities and hopes to engage students from other towns as the program grows.

Bridges is free to join or attend. Any youth (18 years or younger), regardless of his or her sexual or gender identity, is welcome.

The next Bridges meeting will be May 13, from 6 to 7:30 p.m., at The Junction Teen Center in White River Junction.

Jeralyn Darling can be reached at jdarling@vnews.com or 603-727-3305.