Support of gay mentors prompts attack on Big Brothers Big Sisters

NEW YORK – Big Brothers Big Sisters of America has told its 490 local affiliates to give openly gay and lesbian volunteers an equal chance to serve as one-on-one mentors to children, incurring the wrath of several conservative groups.

The 98-year-old youth organization – devoted to helping children from single-parent homes – says it is undaunted by the criticism, which includes calls for its corporate backers to halt donations.

”We’re getting incredible, positive support for the action we took,” the organization’s president, Judy Vredenburgh, said Thursday.

Big Brothers Big Sisters, or BBBSA, has endorsed nondiscrimination principles for 25 years that cover sexual orientation, race, religion and ethnicity. Only last month, however, did the provision about sexual orientation become mandatory policy for all BBBSA affiliates, a few of which had been rejecting gay volunteers.

Though BBBSA gives parents the option of rejecting mentors for various reasons, including sexual orientation, the move to make the non-discrimination policy binding on affiliates has provoked outrage from several conservative organizations.

Donald Wildmon, chairman of the American Family Asso-ciation, contends that BBBSA ”will become a magnet for homosexuals who exploit opportunities to engage young, impressionable children with their unhealthy lifestyle.”

His association’s Web site offers a form letter to be sent to BBBSA’s corporate supporters, asking that they suspend donations until BBBSA ”repeals this dangerous and troubling policy.”

Another conservative group, Focus on the Family, said its founder, James Dobson, would delete favorable references to BBBSA in future editions of his recent book Bringing Up Boys.

Focus on the Family’s psychologist-in-residence, Bill Maier, said BBBSA should realize that ”matching fatherless boys, starving for attention, with homosexual men is reckless and irresponsible, not to mention a recipe for disaster.”

So far, there has been no indication corporate backers will shy away from BBBSA.

Larry Plumb, a spokesman for Verizon Communications, said his company had a long track record in support of nondiscrimination. Martin Kish, vice president of communications for Valvoline, said his company was studying the BBBSA’s policy – but so far remained steadfast in its support.

Vredenburgh said only a handful of BBBSA’s local leaders had expressed concern about the new policy, and she was planning to consult with them.

Like most large-scale youth programs, BBBSA has dealt with occasional sex abuse cases over the years. However, the organization says it has less than 10 abuse allegations per year in a program that currently matches 220,000 children with mentors.

”We’re absolutely brilliant in screening out any inappropriate person,” Vredenburgh said. ”Our track record of protecting the child on the one hand, and positively influencing them on the other – we’re really proud of it.”

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