He was a stranger to the gay scene in his early 20s — until his friend introduced a brand new world to him.
This was Matt Lemche’s first experience with mentorship. Now, Lemche works as a mentor with Toronto’s Supporting Our Youth (SOY) program at Sherbourne Health which offers mentorship between queer people of different generations.
“I think the key to mentorship is to be able to create a space that is unconditionally supportive and non-judgmental,” Lemche says.
He first began working as a mentor with SOY in 2012. The Brampton native had been volunteering at a local LGBT community centre for a while, but was seeking a more regular way to give back. He went through a series of interviews at SOY and was ultimately paired with a youth. Unlike informal mentorships that may occur organically, SOY’s program goes to considerable lengths to ensure the right match, trying to pair mentors and youth based on common interests and experiences.
Lemche says he knew the importance of mentorship because he experienced it first hand in his 20s, though not through a formalized system: having a friend who was active in the gay scene was a critical entry point for him to embrace his identity and helped him access a space to gain knowledge that wasn’t readily accessible any other way.
Two decades later, they’re still friends.
Lemche says queers growing up in rural and suburban areas often flock to bigger cities, hoping to connect with a wider community. He sees this as a key reason for needing mentorship.
While there will be a larger population of queer folks to connect with, Lemche says the move can also mean youth find themselves cut off from key support systems they had before.
Mentorship has always been a part of the broader queer community, in large part because of the unique nature of queer life. Most cultures you’re born into. But most queer people come into the world an orphan. Over the last two decades some queer organizations have begun looking into ways they can facilitate the process of finding a mentor.
Verlia Stephens has been SOY’s mentorship and peer leadership coordinator since 2016. She first began working with the organization in 2012 on a student placement. During that time, she noticed that the program struggled to have consistent mentors for their Black Queer Youth group.
“I recognized right away that the majority of SOY mentors, even though well-meaning, did not always reflect the life experiences and identities of the majority of the youth accessing our service,” Stephens says.
“When I was hired into my current position, I was excited to be able to ensure that SOY mentors reflected the youth who come to SOY. We are now recruiting Indigenous, Black, African, racialized, trans-feminine, newcomer and refugee mentors to reflect the majority of youth at SOY.”
Stephens is in the middle of setting up a new Black Queer Youth mentorship project, which will launch later in early 2019. She’s also developed an enhanced mentorship training program where mentors are led through the unique complexities of what queer youth face today and how mentors can better support youth.
Lemche says that being a mentor is both challenging and rewarding.
“As opposed to trying to mould someone, it’s about being there to reaffirm whomever they are and however they feel in that moment,” he says. “Consistency is also really important, since a lot of queer youth are lacking that.”
Of course, there’s the opportunity to give back to his community, a responsibility he takes seriously. But it’s also about what he gets from the exchange.
“As a mentor, I definitely feel like I’m getting back at least as much as I’m giving,” he says.
“Young queer people are often at the forefront of social justice movements and so, by getting to be around them, I’m learning a lot. Spending time with youth in our community teaches you what the future can look like, and that’s exciting.”