Linda Gregory's passion for helping others led her to a career in education.
After working in education for nearly 30 years, she had visions of relaxing and traveling. Those ideas lasted less than one year when she was hired for a part-time job with Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Delaware.
The job of coordinating a mentoring program for lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender youth was an answer to a prayer. Finding ways to celebrate diversity and supporting families and children has been her passion for more than a decade. Married with two grown children, Gregory says she never dreamed her life's path would lead to this point.
It wasn't until she learned that one of her daughters was a lesbian that her eyes were opened to the issues faced by homosexual young people. “I blame her for all of this,” Gregory says with a laugh. “She is successful, married and has a child. She is my cheerleader and encourages me to go forward.”
The new Big Brothers/Big Sisters program – successfully piloted in 2012 in New Castle County – has two mentoring components: site-based with students in established Gay/Straight Alliances or other clubs in schools; and one-on-one mentoring in a community-based setting.
Gregory is in the process of recruiting adult mentors. “This is an opportunity to take the next step,” Gregory said. “My passion is children. The at-risk behavior potential from some of these kids is not conducive to a successful life,” she said.
At-risk children need support system
Gay, lesbian and bisexual adolescents are more likely than their heterosexual classmates to engage in high-risk behaviors such as smoking, taking drugs, drinking alcohol or contemplating suicide, according to a Center for Disease Control study done in five states, including Delaware.
Gregory said gay and lesbian students are also more likely to face bullying in school. “That leads to a high rate of absenteeism that impacts their education and test scores,” she said.
Gregory said some homosexual teens have myriad issues to deal with before they even begin to worry about completing school work or thinking about college. “We want to help these kids feel like all other kids,” she said.
There are not accurate records of how many homosexual students attend Sussex County high schools, but Gregory says the number is higher than most people think. A survey completed at Sussex Tech High School revealed that from 80 to 100 of about 1,300 students were gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
Gregory said most schools – including Cape Henlopen High School – have active diversity-appreciation clubs with participation from a variety of students and staff.
Gregory said programs should start earlier at the elementary and middle school levels.
Support for the bravest kids in the world
Three years ago, Gregory formed the only downstate chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. The group meets at 6 p.m. on the second Tuesday of every month at the Lewes Public Library.
She has also established a hot-line for people to call to seek information and ask questions. Gregory said she would like to develop a resource guide for parents and children because getting information is not always easy.
Gregory said for some, clubs and PFLAG programs are the only places they can turn to for support. “Not all have a supportive family, which can lead to a high rate of homelessness, bullying and concerns of suicide,” she said. “But not all need assistance, and some are managing very well.”
Support programs have proven to be successful. She said many homosexual teens have not come out, worry about coming out or are confused about their sexuality. “Some worry about being discovered. Religion and family beliefs enter into it as well. For some there could be a very complex family dynamic,” she said.
“They are the bravest kids in the world. Can you imagine hiding your real self?” she asked.
Gregory said over the past decade some of the walls preventing acceptance have been broken down. “But there is still a lot of work to do yet. People need to be educated and supported,” she said.
She is looking forward to the day when programs like these are not needed. “It's not going to happen anytime soon, but maybe my granddaughter's generation will see it,” she said.
Lewes is like her hometown
Gregory, who grew up on Long Island, N.Y., moved, with her husband, Howard, to the Lewes area in 1999. “This is the place we found that looked the most like Long Island,” she said. She said her family has always had a connection to the beach as they spent as much time as possible at the beach on Fire Island in New York.
With Howard serving in the U.S. Air Force, the family lived for seven years in Germany and became familiar with downstate Delaware when they were stationed at Dover Air Force Base.
She taught third and fifth grade students in the Lake Forest School District, developed elementary curriculum in the Cape Henlopen School District and finished her career as an instructor and advisor at Delaware Tech.
Now, she is moving on to another vocation as coordinator of a new program. “This is not a job; this is my heart,” she says. “It's fun and I get to meet new people and be helpful.”
Gregory says she is getting the program started so someone else can come along and improve it. “I'm putting the pebble in the water and letting the waves go out,” she said.
That doesn't mean she won't save time for her other passion – traveling with her husband. “There is just too much to see out there,” she said.
During her first year of retirement, they spent two months in Florida, visited Italy and took a transatlantic voyage across the Atlantic Ocean.