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Mulligan’s Manor

This is not Sean. This photo is of a boy like Sean, who wasn't as lucky.

I want to tell you a story.  It’s about a boy.  I don’t know his real name.  That information is confidential.  So we’re just going to call him Sean.  He grew up in a conservative family in California.  Like all kids do, he loved his family, even if they were not perfect.  And for many years, he kept a secret from them.  A secret fundamental to his existence and identity.  Sean was a boy who was only attracted to other boys.  He couldn’t help it.  And he couldn’t explain it.  That’s just how he was naturally.

One day he couldn’t keep this a secret from his family any longer.  So he told them.  Expecting only what every kid expects from his family.  Their love and support.

Sean’s family didn’t understand.  And they did not like what Sean had to say.  They figured the problem could be solved by a good old fashioned spanking.  And when that didn’t seem to negate his sexual orientation, a stronger beating seemed in order.

When Sean woke up in the hospital with 100 staples in his back, he discovered that he didn’t have a family any more.  It wasn’t his decision.  The government had taken him away from his family for his own protection.  (And if ever there was a situation where a kid should be torn from his home for his own protection, this was it.)

Sean was relocated to live with extended family in Phoenix, but was physically abused by them, as well.  So he entered the group home system, living with other “troubled” kids whose parents “couldn’t handle them.”  In typical fashion, he was relocated from group home to group home.  He had 6 different “families” in 18 months.  He was picked on by the kids he lived with.  He was even picked on by some of the house parents in the homes.  Because he was different.  Gay, lesbian, and transgendered kids in the foster care system are at the bottom of the pack.  Sean had showed an interest in makeup at an early age, and this made him an easy target.

A home without judgement.

But Sean is a smart kid.  He wanted a place to truly call home, where he wouldn’t have to worry about hiding himself from his “siblings” and house parents.  He did his research…and he discovered Mulligan’s Manor…a group home of a very different sort.  It was started in November of 2011 by a woman named Jenny Diaz.  Jenny had a background in social work and cases of sexual abuse, and wanted to provide a safe place for some of the many children in her community who needed loving homes.  (There are over 7,000 children without families in the county where Phoenix is located.)  But within that unthinkable number are underdogs.  The kids that the rest of the kids pick on.  The kids that foster parents don’t want.  Gay and lesbian kids.  And kids who were born into bodies with a gender that they don’t feel belongs to them.  Jenny discovered through a bit of research that these kids, more than any others, have the most difficulty adjusting in group homes.  So she decided to take her own house…the house where she had raised her daughter Shannon…and turn it into a safe haven for THOSE kids.

Sean went to live at Mulligan’s Manor.  He found himself surrounded by kids who were like him.  Kids he could talk to without worrying about being beaten up.  Kids who would HELP him put on his makeup, if he felt like wearing it.  Perhaps most importantly, he was welcomed by house parents who showered love and acceptance on him.  Who assured him that he could tell them ANYTHING at all, and he would always be loved.  And who would give him lessons on applying makeup, if that’s what he wanted to do.

Also, Sean discovered that all his house brothers weren’t necessarily gay or transgendered.  Some of them were heterosexual.  Because Mulligan’s Manor is a place where kids learn from each other about acceptance.  To learn to be each others’ allies, rather than perpetuating separatism and discrimination.

Sean’s story is not unusual.  In the past 2 years, Mulligan’s Manor has been called “home” by 13 kids with similar stories.  Kids who might not have made it otherwise.  Like Evan.  (That’s also not his real name.)  Evan was in the foster care system as a toddler, and was eventually adopted in elementary school by a very conservative, devout family.  When he became a teenager, he confided in his parents that he was gay.  It did not go over well.  No longer welcome in his home, feeling persecuted and rejected by the only family he ever knew, Evan was found on the verge of suicide and was placed in a behavioral health clinic until the danger of suicide passed.  While he was there, a social worker told him about Mulligan’s Manor, which is now his home.  He has only been there for about a month, but he’s already teaching his house brothers how to play piano and sing.  And, ironically, the fact that he grew up with a steady adopted family (a rarity for kids in the system) has allowed him to share a level of stability and connection with his house brothers that they are not accustomed to.

Volunteers fixing up Mulligan's Manor before the arrival of their first kid

Because many of them have never experienced long-term love before landing at Mulligan’s.  Take Alex, for instance.  That IS his real name, because Alex just turned 18 and is no longer a ward of the state, so he can give authorization to use his real name.  Alex entered the state ward system at age 4, and before he landed at Mulligan’s at age 16, he had lived in 29 group homes.  That’s a new family every 6 months.  Can you imagine that lack of stability in your own childhood?  Alex has now graduated from high school and is interviewing for jobs.  He’s saving up to buy a car, and he’s applying to universities.  Shannon (the daughter of the founder, a former house parent at Mulligan’s, and their fundraising coordinator) had a chat with him recently about his experience at Mulligan’s, and he said something remarkable.  He had been in therapy continuously for much of his life.  But he said that it never seemed to work, because he couldn’t understand what the therapists were telling him.  Words like “love” and “trust” and “compassion” and “empathy” made no sense to him.  He had no frame of reference with which to understand them.  They were just words with memorized definitions.  But after a year at Mulligan’s, therapy started working for him.  Because, he said, for the first time in his life, he was experiencing love.  Love for others.  Others loving him.  And, most importantly, discovering how to love himself.

Alex, on his 18th birthday. (This is his real photo.)

I first encountered Mulligan’s Manor last summer at a fundraiser organized by my friend Donna Donahue.  Donna is one of those one-of-a-kind people that you never forget.  I had interacted with her, as a MasterChef fan, on Facebook and Twitter, and on one of my trips out west to LA, she said that if I was coming through Phoenix, I should stop for a drink and meet her.  Phoenix isn’t directly on the way to LA, it’s about a 100 mile detour.  But something told me I should meet Donna.  So I did.  And I became great friends with her and her husband Chuck.  Donna works at a nonprofit that supports at-risk youth in Phoenix, and she invited me to come help with a bake sale her kids were doing to raise money for the “No Kid Hungry” organization.  While we were setting up, a group of young gay kids came up and offered their assistance.  I assumed it was a youth support group, like the kind I was involved in after moving to the big city for the first time.  But I learned from their house-parent, Marcus, about Mulligan’s Manor.  The boys worked very hard at the bake sale.  They ran up and down the street, telling people about the delicious yummies for sale, and how 100% of the proceeds went to ending child hunger.

Volunteers at Mulligan's Manor, including the founder, Jenny Diaz

And at one point in the evening, I just sat down and cried.  Here were all these kids, disadvantaged to a supreme extent, working up a sweat to raise money for OTHER kids.  It was overwhelming.  I bought them all pizza from a famous Phoenix food truck and sat down at the table to listen to their stories.  And I tried to be a big boy and not cry.  But when you are looking at a beautiful, creative, hopeful, talented, articulate, extraordinary 13 year old boy with his whole life ahead of him, you wonder what kind of person would toss him out onto the street.  Don’t they see what I see?  Someone who deserves to be loved unconditionally?  Someone who can change the world if he wants to?

Donna was as surprised to see them show up at the fundraiser as I was.  The youth organization she works for isn’t related to Mulligan’s Manor.  But, in typical Donna fashion, she adopted the Mulligan’s boys as her pet project.  This past Christmas she took donations and was able to fill virtually every gift on every boy’s Christmas list.  She goes to the Manor to teach them cooking classes and just be a friend.  And they love her.

Green breakfast for the kids on St. Patty's

Mulligan’s isn’t your typical group home.  While licensed group homes can have up to 10 kids at a time, Mulligan’s tries to stay closer to 5, so the kids can build meaningful family connections with each other, have individualized attention and care, and be able to enjoy activities that kids in larger group homes don’t always get to, like personalized tutoring, field trips and weekend retreats.  While they definitely target gay, lesbian, transgendered, and questioning youth, those kids can be difficult to “find” in the system…because you learn early on to hide your sexuality to avoid rejection and violence.  But, at the same time, they also want to foster kids who identify as heterosexual because it’s important for these young gay kids to see supportive straight people as allies and friends.  No kid leaves Mulligan’s Manor until they turn 18, unless they need a higher level of medical or psychological care than the Manor staff can give them.  Mulligan’s Manor is their home.  Unless their natural home becomes a welcoming place for them again.

The ultimate goal at Mulligan’s is to reunite kids with their natural families.  Because people can change.  If parents prove eager to have their child back, and can prove to the state that they will provide a loving, nurturing, healthy environment…and if the kids come to learn that their families have had a change of heart and want to prove their love and acceptance…a kid can be reunited back home.  Unfortunately, this type of happy ending is far less likely than the kids “aging” out of the system at 18.  Which is why Mulligan’s is often the last group home a child ever has to be placed in…because they are there to stay, in an environment of love and acceptance.

This does not come without cost.  Mulligan’s Manor is supported primarily by donations.  And, as you can imagine, raising money for a charity that the public might view as a “gay charity” can be challenging.  They’ve had trouble making payroll for the already under-paid angels who devote their lives to helping these kids have a life of pride and success.

So this Saturday, July 13, they are hosting their first annual “Bowling for the Manor,” a fundraiser to bring awareness to the community and raise money so they can keep doing what they’re doing.  If you live in the Phoenix area, you can join the bowl-a-rama (either as a team or an individual), or win some great prizes from local businesses in their raffle.  Or place a bid at the silent auction for some really big prizes, like 2 tickets to anywhere Southwest Airlines flies, or a weekend getaway at the legendary Clarendon Hotel.

If you don’t live in Phoenix but your heart reaches out to these kids, who’ve endured so much, yet only want to be loved and to find their own special place in this big world, you can make a donation on their website.  Whether it’s $5 or $20 or $100 or more, it will do far more good for the world than that caramel macchiato you were gonna get tomorrow, or that new pair of shoes you’ve been thinking about.  And you’ll feel WAY better about yourself, knowing you’ve actually done something that helped change a kid’s life.

As I was finishing up this post, I texted Shannon because I realized I had completely forgotten to ask about the origins of the name “Mulligan’s Manor.”  I was imagining that the founder Jenny, Shannon’s mom, must have had a very special gay uncle named Mulligan, or something of the sort.  But Shannon set me straight.

It turns out I know very little about sports.  In golf, a “mulligan” is a second chance…the ability to do something over again without being penalized.  So many kids get penalized simply for being who they are, and absolutely nothing else.  Mulligan’s Manor is giving these kids that second chance…to become the extraordinary person they truly are, rather than be penalized for who they are not.

A mural at Mulligan's Manor. Each kid who lives there gets a flower with their name beside it. (Names removed because they are wards of the state.) In this way, each kid becomes forever part of the home that saved them.

Follow Mulligan’s Manor on Facebook to find out what their kids are up to.  Even if you’re broke as a joke, like I am at the moment, send them a few bucks at the very least.  Doing good for others feels WAY better than a midnight taco run.  And if you know of similar organizations or programs in your town, tell us about them in the comments below.  It’s heartening to hear about amazing people doing good for those who need it.  And for those of you doing the good work at Mulligan’s, I thank you from the very bottom of my heart.  You are truly changing the world for the better.

(I was unable to show you photos of any of the kids at Mulligan’s Manor other than Alex, because they are still minors and are considered wards of the state, and their identity is confidential.  Phoenix-area folks are welcomed to volunteer at the house and meet the kids.)

ADDENDUM:  After such an amazing response in the comments here and on Facebook, I’m gripped with the need to say that, as much time as I spend criticizing MasterChef for stooping to the lowest common denominator these days, none of you would have a clue who I am without MasterChef, and I’d have never inherited this AMAZING family of fans all over the world who care so deeply about the important things in life.  So they must be doing SOMETHING right, and as upset as I am over the directions they’ve taken, the fact is that they are still introducing genuine people to a larger audience who can, with YOUR help, make a difference in this world.  Thank you, all of you, for being amazing.

Merry Christmas to All!

Today is Christmas.  2012.  Christmas is a holiday celebrated around the world, and though it is claimed by Christians as a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, and the holiday is named thusly, its roots predate Christianity and it draws on ancient celebrations from many religions.  I have always been drawn to Christmas for this reason.  On this day, families all around the world are gathering together to share a meal, gifts, and music, whether they are Buddhist, atheist, Catholic, or attend the Westboro Baptist Church.  Even those who reject the holiday’s customs and commercialism often gather in groups to share food and drink while protesting the holiday…and are, in essence, still embodying the spirit of Christmas.

This Christmas is different.  I can feel it in my bones.  Sure…every year we think, “Christmas just isn’t like it used to be.”  Life is more stressful.  We’re obligated to attend a seemingly-endless line of parties.  We have to travel to several family get togethers in the space of a week.  There are gifts and travel to budget for, when there’s just no wiggle room in the budget.  I would venture a guess that the majority of us GROAN when we hear the first Christmas song on the radio in late October or early November.

But this year, Christmas is REALLY different.  Eleven days ago, twenty children were slaughtered at their school in Connecticut.  On the same day, almost the same number of students in a Chinese school were stabbed.  Three days before that, people were attacked in a mall in Portland and two more died.  Four days ago, a man in Pennsylvania killed three people, thinking the world was about to end.  Then yesterday, Christmas Eve, firefighters in New York responded to a house fire set by an individual who proceeded to open fire on them as they approached, killing two of them.  It has been an awful, bloody December.  And those of us with tender hearts find ourselves wondering what has happened to the world, and how on earth we can ever hold on to our faith in our fellow man.

Politicians, preachers, and purveyors of sensationalist journalism love to toss around the word “evil.”  They use the term prolifically to describe countries and governments, agendas and assassins.  Suicide bombers are evil.  Terrorists are evil.  Adam Lanza (the man who was involved in the Connecticut school shooting) was evil.

I believe in my heart that very, very few evil people have walked this earth.  I think if you look into the heart of Adam Lanza, or a suicide bomber in the Middle East, what you’ll find is actually a lack of love.  When someone feels absolutely surrounded by love from all directions, it’s incredibly hard to be anything but ecstatic, fulfilled, and joyful.  But for those who have trouble connecting to the people around them…especially those like Adam Lanza who are deeply socially challenged and find themselves laughed at, picked on, and shunned…the results can lead them to a horrifically dark place.

So while our country, and the world at large, is about to enter a great debate about the tools wherewith people commit mass murder (namely semi-automatic weapons), I prefer to take a different road this holiday season, and talk instead about love.

Because, if Adam Lanza had felt loved and accepted by his schoolmates and compatriots, rather than feeling like an outcast, I believe those wretched deeds at Sandy Hook elementary would never have happened.  I believe that if the young men recruited to be suicide bombers by terrorist organizations had been surrounded by loving friends, family, and community, they would not be so easily misled by zealots.  In fact, tragedies like Jonestown and the Branch Davidians in Waco, which seem so far in the past, resulted in vast, tragic loss of life because these dangerous cults offered people who otherwise felt like outcasts a sense of love and community and belonging.  Wanting to be loved is our most basic need.  Water and food may feed the body, but unless the soul is also fed, we see the horrific results.

So before we condemn those who seem to be evil to the core…or those like Westboro Baptist who seem to spread hate incongruously to their fellow Christians…let’s first realize that these people are probably all suffering from a tragic lack of love in their lives.  Sure, Adam Lanza’s mother loved him deeply, and I can’t imagine how she would feel today were she still alive…but the love of one person is rarely enough, especially for someone who is deeply troubled.  We need to feel loved by everyone around us…not just those who share our religion, or share the same blood.  In fact, we need to feel loved by people who believe the complete opposite of us.  For then we know the love is unconditional and not circumstantial.

So my Christmas message to you today is to love everyone around you…especially the ones who are hardest or most uncomfortable to love.  None of us will ever be able to process the tragedies of the past two weeks.  We will never understand why.  We will never be at peace with what has happened, especially to the innocent children.

But the best way to prevent such horrific events in the future is to spread the love.  It is foolish to think that government legislation will ever solve this problem.  The war on drugs will never be won.  Nuclear bombs will never disappear.  Semi-automatic weapons are here to stay, whether they are legal or not.  But if we each do our job of loving everyone within arm’s reach, and if EVERYONE will do this, it will be a lot harder for someone to feel so isolated…so rejected by society…so downtrodden…that they feel their only way out is to enact such a heinous crime.

People ask me all the time why I’m such a happy person.  And the answer began in 1977 with a family that loved and still loves me, and a large clutch of incredible people all around the world who constantly remind me how much I am loved and needed.  It’s impossible to be unhappy with a life like that.  So whether YOU feel that way or not, you certainly can do your part to ensure that everyone around you feels that love coming from you.

Some people tell me, “I come from a broken home.  I haven’t spoken to my mom in a decade.  My dad is a drunk and doesn’t care whether I live or die.  I don’t know how to love.”  Which is, excuse my French…total bullshit.  You are human.  The ability to love is encoded into every cell in your body.  Take a look at a sleeping puppy.  Gaze on the Grand Canyon.  Go down the slide at a playground nearby or climb a tree and watch the sunset.  Your heart will surge.  It doesn’t matter how deeply you’ve been hurt before…you have the unending and infinite capacity to love.  And the more love you share with those around you, the more love will come washing over you.  It’s the perfect universal commodity and it’s everything that money is not.  The more love you invest, the more love you get back, the happier everyone is, the better the world becomes.

So this Christmas, as you contemplate your life and the upcoming year, instead of making a resolution to lose weight…to save money…to quit smoking…why not make a resolution that will make the entire world a better place?  Commit to loving more people in your life…especially the ones who are hard to love.  Especially the ones you feel awkward or uncomfortable around.  And most especially, the ones who haven’t done a very good job of loving you back.  (It’s really hard for a one-sided feud to persist for long.)

I wish you and your family and friends the most wonderful holiday season, filled with love and joy.  Merry Christmas!