With volunteerism and advocacy, two VTeamers uplift the LGBTQ community
By Frances Moffett
Verizon volunteers Jim Otto and Mario Acosta-Velez share how they are taking pride in changing the lives of LGBTQ youth.
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“We spent an hour learning about the work they do with LGBTQ young people in crisis,” Otto says. “It was such a moving presentation that you couldn’t help but be on the edge of your seat.”
Jim Otto’s passion for volunteering started during his college fraternity days, when he was a student at the University of Akron. Credit: Eli Hiller
The Trevor Project, a Verizon strategic volunteer partner, is the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for young people identifying as LGBTQ. According to the CDC, suicide is a leading cause of death among teens. LGBTQ youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers, per The Trevor Project. These tragic statistics motivated Otto to join in the important work that VTeamers were doing throughout the organization.
Otto, a client executive in the Verizon Business Group, based in Akron, Ohio, started his involvement with the project by creating a TikTok video to help generate donations and awareness. Being a veteran VTeamer—Otto has been with the company for 27 years—he immediately realized he wanted to do more. He stepped out of his comfort zone and applied to be a youth crisis counselor, an opportunity he found through the Citizen Verizon Volunteers portal.
To become a counselor, participants must complete a 40-hour virtual training over 10 weeks and commit to at least a one-year volunteering term. Otto joined the digital counseling program, which connects counselors with young people via text and online chats. Counselors provide support on various issues, including coming out, identity, depression and suicide.
When it was time for Otto to do his first live chat, he was nervous. “It was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “This is really serious content. It’s not like you’re talking to youth about studying for schoolwork; they can be struggling with self-harm or thinking about suicide. I didn’t know what to expect.”
In addition to helping LGBTQ youth, Otto uses the Citizen Verizon Volunteers portal to find volunteer opportunities that assist with Alzheimer’s and autism research. Credit: Eli Hiller
The skills and training Otto gained through The Trevor Project have had an impact beyond his volunteering, allowing him to be a resource to two people in his personal life who were struggling with self-harm and suicidal ideation.
“It’s amazing to me how many friends and coworkers have somehow been affected by a youth in their family who is in some sort of crisis,” Otto says. “Suicide is such a deep subject, and [though] it’s not something people openly talk about around the watercooler, it's more prevalent than people realize.”
Otto’s passion for volunteering and dedication to serving LGBTQ youth have kept him motivated throughout his term as a counselor. “I love the impact you can make on somebody’s life and the good feeling you get when they end that conversation with a little smiley face and say, ‘You’re the first person who’s listened to me — thank you, I appreciate you,’” says Otto. “It just melts your heart.”
Creating safe spaces through visibility and leadership
Washington, D.C.-based Mario Acosta-Velez says that volunteerism and building inclusive communities have always been part of his personal mission and commitment. Credit: Eli Hiller
When it comes to volunteering within the LGBTQ community, Mario Acosta-Velez, a director of local engagement, corporate social responsibility and public policy for Verizon, shares Otto’s enthusiasm. Specifically, he enjoys helping young people hone their leadership skills.
“I’m passionate about mentoring youth about careers and becoming leaders, and how they can embrace diversity and inclusion principles in their development,” says Acosta-Velez, a VTeamer of 15 years and a volunteer lead for Verizon’s State and Government Affairs (SGA) East team.
During his time as the national president of Verizon’s LGBTQ+ employee resource group PRISM, Acosta-Velez was introduced to Verizon strategic volunteer partner OutRight Action International, a human rights organization dedicated to improving the lives of people who experience discrimination or abuse on the basis of their real or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.
Acosta-Velez volunteers as an application reviewer for OutRight’s fellowship program, which helps LGBTQ leaders from all over the world enhance their leadership and advocacy work and be more effective in protecting the human rights of LGBTQ people in their home countries.
“Reading those applications allowed me to gain a new perspective on the issues, challenges and advocacy work done by LGBTQ leaders in other countries, in many cases under challenging circumstances,” he says. “That inspired me, and I realized that we’re all connected by a mission to empower our communities. This is why I do volunteer work and dedicate time to have an impact in other people’s lives.”
Acosta-Velez has been active in the Citizen Verizon Volunteers program since its inception, serving as volunteer lead for SGA East. Credit: Eli Hiller
Acosta-Velez has expanded his own impact through volunteer work with other organizations serving LGBTQ youth. He believes that visibility among leadership helps create safe spaces where young people can thrive.
“As LGBTQ leaders, it’s important that we are visible, that we serve as role models, and that we help create inclusive workplaces and communities where people can grow without hiding who they are,” Acosta-Velez says. “It’s powerful when young people in this community see themselves reflected in positions of leadership that they can aspire to.”
Because of this desire to stay visible and be a role model, Acosta-Velez is dedicated to his volunteer work and encourages others to join in. “Volunteerism is part of who we are at Verizon,” Acosta-Velez says. “It is part of what makes our company a great place to work.”