LGBTQ+ center stretches to increase care in communties near and farThe Nonprofit Journal Project

"If we're really going to effect change," says Affirmations executive director Dave Garcia, "we've got to do it together."
A space where he’s free to fully be himself, that’s what Affirmations is to 70-year old Michael Hovey. 

He couldn’t wait until the Ferndale-based LGBTQ+ community center reopened this past July, after being closed to in-person gathering since March of 2020, due to the pandemic. Now, he sits again every Thursday afternoon at the nonprofit’s welcome table waiting to greet folks as they walk in or call.

“This is my community,” he says. “I consider people here my friends and colleagues, and I look forward to seeing them every week.” Prior to the lockdown, Hovey had been volunteering at Affirmations for three-and-a-half-years, and had participated in the center’s Alcoholics Anonymous group before that.

Inside the community hub he feels relaxed, supported and understood. It’s the opposite of his experience in the career he retired from four years ago, where, he says, he could never be out. As front desk and lead volunteer at Affirmations, he now has regular opportunities to offer people the acceptance he'd craved for so long.
Michael Hovey. Photo by Sarah Williams.

“Some people already feel that way about themselves,” he says, “but others never have.” He tells about a phone call he took last month where a 50-year-old man asked if he wouldn’t mind hearing him say out loud, I’m gay. I can’t say that to anyone else, and I’m so glad you’re listening. 

"Not every interaction is quite that dramatic," he says, "but when we talk to people on the phone, or when they come in, you know, I just want to get up and give them a hug and say, “Welcome.”

Connected to the community

For over 30 years, Affirmations has been the hub of Southeast Michigan’s LGBTQ+ communities and their allies. In the heart of Ferndale, in a 17,000-square-foot building owned by the community (it’s mortgage is paid), people of all sexual orientations, identities, expressions and cultures find socialization, support and programming to enrich their lives. 

Free youth offerings at Affirmations include a safe space Drop-In Center (replaced by a 24/7 virtual chat room center during COVID-19), a 16-week leadership and workforce development programming, Pride Prom, an annual Youth Lock-In, a monthly LGBTQ+, social justice-focused book club, etc.

Over 20 adult support and discussion groups meet daily and weekly through the center, which also houses an art gallery, a cyber hub, a game room and gathering spaces. The groups focus on all kinds of recovery, coming out, social networking and more. Here, the community also has regular access to therapy, counseling services, workplace inclusion training, and HIV and STD/STI testing.

When the pandemic hit, Affirmations moved all its groups online, even it’s large Senior Koffee Klatch, a lifeline to many elders struggling with isolation and identity masking in assisted living facilities. It was difficult, and there were numerous lessons to learn along the way, says executive director Dave Garcia, including how to lock down security so groups would stop getting Zoom-bombed with homophobic slurs, swastikas and the like.

But, following the confusion, a silver lining appeared.

“We started to see young people come into our youth group from all over the state, very rural areas that probably wouldn't have been able to make it to Affirmations face-to-face,” Garcia says. “Some of our trans folks started coming from as far as Washington and even Europe because we were online."

The center is open again to the community six days a week, and some groups are gathering in-person,  but others, he says, will continue to meet virtually, and in some cases both will happen at the same time. 

Another major pivot Affirmations made at the height of COVID-19 was to implement a food assistance program. There was such great need for this in the community, Garcia says , that they had to respond. Volunteers and staff distributed food boxes from the center weekly, offering optional toiletries, personal care items and even winter clothes. 

The program was in partnership with Matrix Health Services, Unified, FCA Foundation, the Flagstar Foundation, Aunt Na’s Kitchen, and Lighthouse Through Oakland County. For those in need, mainly seniors, Affirmations continues to provide free Instacart grocery deliveries up to $75 dollars. Garcia estimates they’ve handed out over 6000 meals.

“We suspect half of the folks who’ve received those meals, if not more, are from the straight community. We take our relationships with our allies very seriously," he says, "and they’re heavily involved in the community center.”

Not one of us is as strong as all of us

This is Dave Garcia’s second stint as executive director of Affirmations. 

After serving five years as the director of policy and community building at the Los Angeles LGBT Center (the largest provider of programs and services for LGBT people in the world), he returned home in 2018 to help dig the Ferndale hub out of some financial trouble. For the past three years, Affirmations has been back in black and is growing again, he says.
Dave Garcia. Photo by Nick Hagen.

In L.A., Garcia also served on the board of directors for CenterLink, an international network of over 270 LGBTQ+ centers working together to “address the social, cultural, health, and political advocacy needs of LGBTQ+ community members across the country and the world.”

What he learned about working in collaboration, he brought back to establish the Michigan Community Centers Network. This has been an important resource during the pandemic especially. Executive directors from LGBTQ+ centers across the state have met regularly to share their COVID-19 challenges, responses and lessons learned.

Through this partnership, Affirmations recently secured a 3-year, $1.06 million-dollar grant to help increase COVID-19 vaccination rates throughout the state’s LGBTQ+ community. This is by far the largest grant the center's received in its 30-plus years. 

“I don’t know if we would have been able to get that grant without the network,” says Garcia. "And in Grand Rapids, Saginaw, Midland, Flint, Benton Harbor, you name it, they’re going to know their backyards better than I do.” Affirmations is in the process of hiring two contract employees to help facilitate the project through June of 2024.

The vaccine project is funded through the Recovery and Rescue Act of 2020 given to the state of Michigan Department of Human Services with a mission to serve vulnerable populations. According to Affirmations, it represents one of the largest investments in LGBTQ+ health in the state’s history outside of HIV/AIDS.

Challenge breeds innovation

For the second year in a row, "Big Bash" is cancelled.

Until last month, the center’s annual black tie fundraiser was scheduled for late October. But even if masks and vaccines were required, with 400 people sipping drinks, passing hors d'oeuvres and eating dinner together, Garcia says, it wouldn't be enough. Not with the Delta variant transmission high in the region and many in Affirmations’ community older and/or immunocompromised.

People's health and safety must remain the center’s top priority, he says, but this is difficult. Like many nonprofits, Affirmations is challenged with finding revenue sources that aren’t dependent on special events, or even grants and individual giving, both which have been difficult to count on during the pandemic.

One way the center has looked to diversify its income is by hiring a licensed masters of social work clinician to expand their behavioral health programming and services, including individual therapy sessions for adults, youth, and groups. These are offered on a sliding scale, but the center also helps folks apply for health insurance. 

“We’ve seen the numbers around mental health and people seeking therapy during the pandemic just skyrocket,” Garcia says. “We have a responsibility to meet the emerging needs of our community, and that's what we're doing."

Affirmations has also created rental opportunities for two small nonprofits looking to be in the heart of Ferndale, where their roots run deep.

Working Together

On Oct.15, The Ringwald Theatre opened its 2021-2022 season in Affirmation’s newly renovated black box space.

In late 2020, due to COVID-19, the theater ended its lease on Woodward Avenue where it'd been hosting performances since 2007. At the time, artistic director and co-founder Joe Bailey said he knew they’d come out on the other side of this challenge, but with no idea when safe in-person gatherings could happen, he didn’t know where or how. 

Earlier this year, Garcia was looking for guidance on how to use the center’s community room as a theater. Bailey and his husband, co-founder and media director Brandy Joe Plambeck were asked for advice and offered themselves as resources. Not knowing the center's plan for the space, Bailey says he eventually "worked up the nerve" to ask if Affirmations could be their new home.

“Before I even finished the question, he said, ‘Absolutely,'" Bailey recounts. “He was intent on us staying, and said nobody wanted to see us leave Ferndale, which meant a lot."

Now, only a half mile from their old location, the vibe is completely new. They’re getting foot traffic off Nine Mile and both the physical space and nearby parking are an upgrade. Best of all, Bailey says, the two nonprofit’s are already engaging each other's communities and reaching folks in ways they hadn’t before. 

Talks have begun concerning a joint youth theater program, and although The Ringwald is foregoing intermissions for its first several shows due to COVID-19, future concession sales and proceeds have been turned over to Affirmations youth programming.

The kinks of sharing and outfitting a space are still being worked out, Bailey says, but this arrangement doesn’t require him to produce as many shows as the old space did, leaving time to explore things like theater education in their shared community.

Almost two years since the Ringwald cast last took a bow in front of a live audience, Bailey says tickets for the new shows are selling well. “PUFFS,” a parody of a certain wizard school runs through Nov. 1, followed by, “A Very Golden Girls Christmas, Vol. 2.” Audiences are required to wear masks, and 12 and up need to show proof of vaccination.

“People seem to be very excited that we're here,” Bailey says. “Having validation from Affirmations base has been gratifying, and we're looking forward to expanding our audience.”
"Puffs" runs at the Ringwald Theatre inside Affirmations through Nov. 1. Courtesy photo.

Reverend Roland Stringfellow of Metropolitan Community Church of Detroit feels a similar way. His congregation held its first Sunday service at Affirmations on Sept. 26.

“Having a spiritual and inclusive congregation within Affirmations really fit well with their mission to the community,” he says. “And the timing was perfect for us.”

MCC Detroit had been renting space in Clawson, but prior to that, they’d met for 20 years in a chapel less than a mile from the center. The church had an established home in Ferndale where congregants were able to walk to services or take public transportation, access that became difficult when they relocated, due to the sale of their rental space.

The group also lost a number of people during the pandemic because of Zoom fatigue, Stringfellow says, something Garcia wasn't even aware of when he approached him about a partnership focused on mind, body and spirit.

With the tagline, “Radically inclusive since 1972,” MCC Detroit is a congregation for LGBTQ and allies, founded by LGBTQ+ and allies, but not exclusively. “We’re a Christian Protestant church, not some crazy fringe like some people may want to label us," he says. "Anyone can find themselves at home with us.”
MCC Detroit on a Sunday morning at Affirmations. Courtesy photo.

He’s looking forward to his congregation connecting with Affirmation’s programming, their outreach, medical testing and mental health services. Since 2018, the two nonprofits have, along with Sage Detroit, been collaborating already on a major LGBTQ-friendly affordable housing project for seniors.

“As a church, we don’t solely engage our people on Sundays," Stringfellow says “We’re really there for them throughout the various seasons of their lives, the ups and the downs.”

It’s clear to him that Affirmations shares that mission.

This cross-pollination of organizations and advocates is important and necessary to strengthening the LGBTQ community, says Garcia. He’s thinking about the nuances to these partnerships, and others yet to come, that haven’t even been imagined yet. 

“In the conversations we all have together about various issues, whether it's LGBT senior issues or political action or advocacy issues, it's very important to have folks in the building, walking around talking to each other, understanding what everyone's working on,”  he says. “If we're going to really effect change, we’ve got to do it together.”

This story is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to share on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.