Lucian, 17, tells PEOPLE that his friendship with Big Sister Kathy helped him through some of the most difficult moments of his life — including when he "struggled" with his gender identity
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N.J. Teen and Teacher Named Bigs And Littles of the Year
Credit: Big Brothers Big Sisters of America

A New Jersey teen formed a special bond with his former 5th grade teacher, to whom he recently came out, through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Now, the organization is awarding them for the inspiring example their friendship is setting.

On Thursday, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBSA) announced that 17-year-old Lucian and his Big Sister Kathy are one of two pairs to receive the annual "Bigs and Littles of the Year" award.

The nonprofit organization, which has more than 235 agencies across the country, matches children from adverse situations, or a "little," with adult volunteers known as a "big," who then serve as a mentor and friend.

Out of thousands of matches, the New Jersey-based pair earned the prestigious title for their unique relationship, which began when Kathy was Lu's 5th grade teacher. (BBBSA Junior Board Co-Chair Jerome Caldwell and his "little brother" Jaylen were also selected for the award.)

Lu tells PEOPLE he feels lucky to have a best friend like Kathy — one who has gotten him through difficult times and is accepting of who he is.

"It's been really interesting over the past six years," Lu says, "because I've really struggled with mental health and just gender identity."

Having his special relationship with Kathy recognized, he adds, "made all of the adversity that I've gone through mean something."

N.J. Teen and Teacher Named Bigs And Littles of the Year
Credit: Big Brothers Big Sisters of America

The bond between Kathy and Lucian began in 2016 amid one of the most difficult years of Lucian's life, during which he coped with a family loss. But his Big Sister remained by his side and offered support in any way she could.

The pair grew even closer when Lu came out as transgender to his Big Sister during a trip to their favorite restaurant, Applebees. The conversation began when Lu discussed the end of a relationship he had been in with a woman, which he says opened up a conversation about his gender identity.

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"I think I showed everything to her at that point," Lu tells PEOPLE. "I think at that moment, it was kind of the moment of our entire relationship where she has really seen every part of me."

The duo tells PEOPLE that it was a major turning point in their relationship. Kathy says that she wanted to make sure she was one of the people in Lu's life that was "accepting and open" to hearing about his journey.

"I was just so glad that Lu felt comfortable enough with me," Kathy explains. "So it made me realize that everything that had been building up in our relationship had reached a point of total trust."

N.J. Teen and Teacher Named Bigs And Littles of the Year
Credit: Big Brothers Big Sisters of America

Taking part in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program helped strengthen the bond between Kathy and Lu. Kathy tells PEOPLE that the program allowed her and Lu to do all sorts of fun things, like going to plays and sporting events. 

Kathy even got to take Lu to his first professional football game to see her favorite team, the Philadelphia Eagles.

"I'm not sure without the program, we would have advanced to where we are today," Kathy tells PEOPLE, "because the program enabled us to do things we might not be able to do."

Kathy tells PEOPLE she hopes her relationship with Lu "inspires people to understand that differences are acceptable," if not welcomed, and that kids should be supported on their journey through life.

"I think we [as adults] need to understand that kids are going through this journey — a journey we went through ourselves at one point to figure out who we were — and we have to accept that they're on that journey right now trying to figure it out," she says.

On the flip side, Lu hopes that his relationship with Kathy will emphasize just how special a student-teacher relationship can be.

"I think a lot of kids think that teachers can't really be the type of person that's going to have their back," he tells PEOPLE, adding, "I think that this … could lead more children to believe that your parents and people in your family and people that live in your house, and even your friends, aren't the only people that can support you."