Ray St-Amour and Marianne Breadner
Local Heros: Ray St-Amour and Marianne Breadner have provided a safe place of support for LGBT youth.
Ray St-Amour and Marianne Breadner: Two of our 2012 Local Heroes
Youth Group Leaders Extraordinaire
Ray St-Amour says she and her partner Marianne Breadner used to joke that they’d still be leading the Dufferin Lesbian/Gay/Bi-sexual/Transgender (LGBT) Youth Group when they were both old enough to need walkers. After 13 years of weekly sessions, their predication didn’t seem improbable. Marianne is a child and family therapist, and Ray (short for Raymonde) is a recently retired high school teacher. Both women have masters of social work. Over the years, they have worked with 279 young people in the LGBT group, many for years at a stretch. With no sustaining government funding, it’s been volunteer work – they even provide the snacks – in space provided by Dufferin Child and Family Services (DCAFS).
A 1998 study by Mental Health America found that LGBT youth are exposed to 26 slurs a day, directed either at them or others. And they are four times more likely to commit suicide. Marianne started the group with Dann Casey in March, 1999. “We immediately had four or five kids every session.” That number has since grown to ten. With an average age of 16 to 17, participants come from Dufferin, Alliston, Caledon and Erin. Ray says lately it seems “every week someone brings a friend.”
Marianne explains the purpose is to serve as a support and social group. It’s not formal therapy, “but it is clinical in part because the kids often face challenges.” Ray sees it as “a place where kids can be comfortable to explore and to ask, ‘Is it safe to come out?’”
Marianne recalls one boy who, although he had never had a slur directed specifically at him, told her, “This is the only time all week that I don’t feel alone.” Activities designed to help bolster the youths’ confidence in their place in the wider world include such events as music nights featuring LGBT performers.
Though the group has been a major commitment, it is by no means the only contribution Marianne and Ray have made to Headwaters’ social well-being.
Marianne has been working since she was 17, in the early years at Charlestown Residential School in Caledon and Serra Residence for Boys in Orangeville while she studied part-time to obtain her degree. She was among the first staff hired at Family Transition Place, and after that spent 16 years as a children’s counsellor with the Upper Grand District School Board. Currently, she works as a child and family clinician at DCAFS. She has also served on the board of DCAFS, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, Trellis Mental Health and Developmental Services, and as a member of the Youth Justice Committee.
This past June, Marianne was honoured with the Gary Putnam Award for her dedication to the LGBT Youth Group. The award recognizes a member of the community who has made a significant contribution to improving the health and wellness of children and families.
Ray joined Marianne as a group leader eight years ago. She also started a diversity group at Orangeville District Secondary School, and has served on the board of Family Transition Place.
During her teaching days, Ray moonlighted as an after-hours crisis worker for Trellis, and has continued that role since her retirement. Currently, she also serves as a crisis intake worker at Family Transition Place, covering a maternity leave. She finds the work rewarding: “I get to see people at their worst moments and help them.”
On top of all that, Marianne and Ray both offer private therapy sessions.
Over the years, the youth group has seen its fair share of challenges. Marianne especially remembers the night she got an urgent call at the beginning of a session. She had to cancel the group, making sure everyone had a ride home, “because my house was on fire.” Many times both women have stayed after group to support someone in crisis, sometimes even accompanying the member to hospital to ensure he or she received appropriate assistance.
An incident in September, 2010 had a significant impact on the group and its leaders. Twenty-one-year-old Jeanine Blanchette and 17-year-old Chantal Dube committed suicide in a wooded area in Orangeville. The sad occurrence received international media attention and was one of several LGBT youth suicides that inspired American author Dan Savage to start his “It Gets Better” campaign.
Because it hit so close to home, Marianne says, “The group found it very difficult. We contacted all the group members, made sure everyone had supports in place. Everyone’s biggest fear was that the group might end.” Describing a sense of hypervigilance, Ray adds, “After the tragedy we were starting to get very drained.”
With the decision to retire, Marianne and Ray set about finding replacements. Wayne Townsend and John Woolner have agreed to serve as volunteers, while Kersty Franklin will provide facilitation.
Together with colleague Gloria Campbell (also one of this year’s Local Heroes), Marianne and Ray organized an event to raise funds so the facilitator’s position can be a paid one. In September, Forte, the Toronto Men’s Chorus, performed at Theatre Orangeville to multiple standing ovations and raised almost $6,000 after expenses. “It was a wonderful day for me,” Marianne says, “and for the kids.” The group has also applied for United Way funding.
“Raising awareness is great, but it means more people use the service,” Ray says. “Prevention with kids is critical to create mentally healthy adults. Groups like this need bucks behind them to be sustainable.”
Though the reward for Marianne and Ray hasn’t been monetary, their long association with the LGBT Youth Group has hardly been without satisfaction. Their remarkable legacy lies in the scores of lives they have touched, and which in turn have touched them. Both visibly swell with pride when the topic turns to what has become of youths who have passed through. A former member who recently came back to visit after graduating from university is cause for particular excitement at the moment.
Ray says, “We see them struggle, but then we see them triumph.”
- Dufferin LGBT Youth Group at 519-941-1530 ext.418
- Toronto Youth Line at 1-800-268-9688 or youthline.ca