Vinnie Pompei Creates Safe Haven for LGBT Children
LGBT Pride Month 2013 Honoree
Vincent “Vinnie” Pompei will never forget the first time he witnessed the bullying. He was a newly-hired teacher at a Los Angeles County middle school. It was recess, and when he heard the words one child shouted to another, it struck a chord deep inside, leaving him cold and shaking.
“I was new and my whole body felt like it did in fifth grade,” recalls Pompei, a 2013 LGBT Pride Month Local Hero honoree. “Immediately I felt for that kid. Whether he was gay or not, that label hurts.”
This one incident became a defining moment for Pompei, setting him on a journey to make schools a safer place for LGBT children, free from bullying and intimidation. And for Pompei, who himself was a victim of bullying, the journey is personal–a journey that he began by creating an environment of acceptance in his own classroom.
“The day I saw the child bullied,” notes Pompei, ”I had a discussion with my students about treating people who are different from you with respect, and that people are of value. I made it very inclusive so that my class became, for the four years I worked there, a safe haven. Many kids would join me at lunchtime and talk to me about very personal things, which then led me to see I needed to become a school counselor.”
Pompei enrolled at Azusa Pacific University to pursue a Master’s Degree in School Counseling. He recognized that in order to effect real change, beyond the limits of his own classroom, he would need the degree and the skills to train school guidance counselors, as well as administrators and teachers, on LGBT student issues.
Pompei vividly recalls the first time he was bullied. It was in fifth grade, in a school south of Sacramento.
“It was during baseball,” he reveals, as he tears up. “I threw the ball and they didn’t like the way I threw it. So, one kid yelled out and then another—‘queer,’ ‘you’re a girl’—and the PE teacher did nothing. I felt my whole body turn bright red. I just wanted to hide and crawl into a hole. I tried to keep my composure because it was that secret that you knew you had, and someone just voiced it and labeled it."
Without a safe haven or support from the adults in his life, Pompei protected himself the best way he could.
“I didn’t want to go to school, so I faked illness and injuries so I could stay home. I went to the nurse’s office constantly, and never ever told my family that I was being bullied. I never told a teacher. How did I keep it hidden? I waited until I got home every day, and closed my bedroom door and cried. I also prayed.“
During this time, Pompei was overcome with a feeling of loneliness that ultimately led to two suicide attempts in 11th grade. “I was all by myself and did it because I just wanted to end the pain. It wasn’t because I was disgusted with myself, but because I didn’t want to hurt anymore. I was so depressed, and I didn’t want to face the bullying any longer.”
After the second suicide attempt. Pompei had an epiphany. He began to believe that there was a reason he was still alive, and soon began to see a future for himself. He applied to college, and was accepted at San Diego State University where he studied International Business at SDSU. Eventually, he also earned a Teaching Credential from CSU Long Beach, his Master’s Degree in School Counseling, and a Master's in Administration.
Today, Pompei, who continues his education, pursuing a Doctorate in Educational Leadership at SDSU, is an educator and an activist. He has developed curriculum for schools on how to address the needs of LGBT students, and travels across the state and throughout the country conducting trainings. He has also served as a Trevor Project ambassador for San Diego. About four years ago, all his experience and efforts came together when he learned that theCenter for Excellence in School Counseling and Leadership (CESCaL) at SDSU, was convening a conference for school counselors on LGBT student issues.
“I was a full time graduate student and also teaching, when I heard that Trish Hatch (Executive Director of CESCaL) was planning a conference. I contacted her and told her I wanted to help. Every Saturday, I’d drive from Temecula (where I was teaching) to San Diego to help plan the conference. I felt very needed and it felt good because they weren’t familiar with organizations such as PFLAG, The Trevor Project or GLSEN. I helped them look at the research and the resources out there and use them appropriately. By year two, Trish made me co-chair and I expanded the conference beyond just counselors to include all educators.”
With Pompei’s involvement, the conference grew from 125 participants in the first year to 600 in the fourth. His commitment to his work on behalf of LGBT students is receiving national attention. Last year, he was one of four public educators invited to the first White House Anti-Bullying Summit with President Obama and First Lady Michele Obama. And, while his impact continues to grow, one thing is certain: no matter where life takes him, he couldn't imagine doing anything else, because for him it's all about the children.
“I will always be having something to do with equity and access for all children. That’s why I think I loved being a teacher, and loved being a school counselor, because that’s what you’re advocating for, and fighting for. You’re fighting for that student in poverty or that student whose parents just got deported, or that student who’s homeless, or that student who just came to the country and is just learning English for the first time. Fighting to support and make sure that each child has an equitable chance achieving the vision and mission of that school. When it comes to working with LGBT youth, it’s personal. It’s my passion taken to the next level because it was my story, too.”
When asked why he does it, and why it’s so important for him to help LGBT youth, Pompei is overcome with emotion.
“My passion is children and their overall well being,” says Pompei. “Not just gay kids, but all kids. I want to make sure they know that they’re of value and that there’s nothing wrong with them. I know it sounds corny but I want to make sure they know it will get better. That there are so many people out there that love and support them, and I want them to get connected with the organizations that can help them. I want to basically give them what I didn’t have.”