‘Knowing that you’re not alone’: Berkeley’s Pacific Center for Human Growth offers mentorship for LGBTQ+ community

Jenna Wong/Staff

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Members of the LGBTQ+ community throughout Alameda County can find a sense of community and mentorship at Berkeley’s Pacific Center for Human Growth.

The Pacific Center, which is the third-oldest LGBTQ+ community center in the country, primarily focuses on mental health services, according to Executive Director Leslie Ewing.

Along with individualized services such as one-on-one counseling and couples therapy, the Pacific Center also hosts 20 peer groups for different parts of the LGBTQ+ community. All but five of the 20 peer groups the Pacific Center hosts are held on-site in Berkeley, and the rest take place at senior centers throughout Alameda County. According to Ewing, there are “very few” services for the LGBTQ+ community in the outlying parts of the county.

Describing the peer groups as “health and wellness at a grassroots level,” Peer Group and Older Adult Program Manager Anne Mitchell said the groups have a low bar for access — participants can pay in the form of a donation if they are able to but otherwise just drop in — which symbolizes the center’s mission.

“The peer groups come out of the community,” Mitchell said. “It comes from a person wanting to meet their own needs and the needs of their community at the same time.”

The peer groups create communities for people of many identities, including a Bi Women’s Support Group and a Queer Femmes Support Group. The Pacific Center also organizes peer groups for specific ages, including youth and senior groups.

In the groups not formed based upon age, Mitchell said she sees a lot of “intergenerational,” unofficial mentorship between the older and younger members. In groups with a lot of members in their 20s, and a few in their 50s — for example, the female-to-male transgender group — Ewing said she sees older members often providing insight into “practical” aspects of living in a new gender identity.

For UC Berkeley graduate student Corey Webster, attending one of the Pacific Center’s peer groups allowed him to find a community in Berkeley. Webster, who described himself as a bit older than his classmates, initially struggled to meet other transgender men on campus.

“Being older and trans meant that I didn’t have a lot of peers I could talk to or hang out (with),” Webster said. “I didn’t feel like I fit in in a lot of places.”

In 2016, Webster began attending the transmasculine peer group because it allowed him to be in a room with a group of people who share his experiences and face similar challenges on a day-to-day basis. Going to the peer group gives him a “good feeling” that he said carries over to the rest of his week.

Webster began facilitating the transmasculine group about six months ago, both as a way to give back to his community and to keep him accountable for attending meetings during the semester. He said he “definitely” sees mentorship take place during his peer group. When he facilitates peer group meetings, Webster does his best to create a safe space to explore the challenges of being transgender.

“It’s a natural exchange of information and wisdom and experience along the way,” Webster said. “I try to let that happen as naturally as possible. It’s inspiring to see how the friendship and camaraderie come up naturally. They have this mutual understanding of going through this challenge in life.”

Fellow peer group facilitator Reese Melchior also emphasized the importance of the sense of community a peer group can bring.

Melchior, who attends two peer groups, said having a designated time and place for his community to have discussions has reinforced his sense of belonging.

“I think the biggest impact it’s had is knowing that you’re not alone,” Melchior said. “Oftentimes, especially coming from the Tri-Valley for me specifically, it’s like ‘hello?’ — there’s no rainbows in sight.”

In addition to attending the Queer, male-identified, Peer, Activity, & Discussion group, Melchior is also a facilitator of the Transitional Age Group, a bimonthly drop-in support group for LGBTQ+ youth from the ages of 18 to 26.

While the group is limited by age and does not experience the same intergenerational mentorship as some of the other groups, Melchior said he believes the group as a whole supports and mentors its members.

“With the groups that I attend, there are those age confines, so I would say it’s definitely a group mentorship in terms of … there wasn’t anyone who took me under their wing — the group did that,” Melchior said. “Being a facilitator, I’m able to keep that space going.”

Alexandra Stassinopoulos covers schools and communities. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @AE_Stass.