Leslie’s speech from her farewell party:
First I would like to thank the Host Committee of Nancy Katz, Margo Dichtelmiller, Allan Gilmour, Eric Jirgens, Torii Hamilton and Bill Korsak.
Many people have heard this story before but at this occasion it bears repeating. When I was 25, after my first relationship with a woman, I was so ashamed and scared that I had decided suicide was my only option. I went out to the garage, closed the door and turned on the car. Those of you who have been to one of my comedy shows know the next line to be “the engine timing was off, I had to get out, change the sparkplugs…” but in reality I decided I needed to leave a note and went back in the house to write a note to my family and friends. My roommate came home unexpectedly in the middle of the afternoon to find me sitting at the kitchen table writing my suicide note and said, uh, you left the car running…
That snapped me out of what I was doing at that moment but it didn’t take away the shame and fear. That would come nine years later when I wondered into this rather dinghy little building at 195 W. Nine Mile. Actually, I didn’t wander as much as I was dragged in by my partner at the time. I had finally told my sister that I was gay (couldn’t say lesbian yet – way too many syllables) but my sister and partner were the only two people who knew. So going to this place called Affirmations that was full of gay people literally freaked me out.
But when I got into that women’s rap meeting in November of 1991 I realized that it was full of everyday people. I had finally found a place to release my shame and fear and be comfortable with myself. Over the next couple of years I had taken the facilitators training, became the facilitator for the women’s rap group, had come out to my entire family, came out at work, attended the Chicago pride parade, Lansing pride parade and the 1993 March on Washington. Over the next several years Affirmations became my second home. I was facilitating Women’s Rap, Couple’s Rap, Couple’s in Touch, was on the Speakers Bureau, volunteered on fundraisers, and even sat on the search committee for the new executive director.
Eventually I turned my LGBT volunteer energies to Main Street Pride – the residence association in Royal Oak and spent much less time at Affirmations. Then in August of 1999 I was innocently sitting at a movie at the Main Art Theater in Royal Oak and Jan Stevenson and Susan Horowitz were sitting behind me. They tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I would like to have coffee afterward. That little gathering changed my life. They told me they thought I should throw my hat in the ring for the executive director job at Affirmations. I had spent my entire career at the helm of a non-profit and they thought I should now use that background to run Affirmations.
The next thing I knew I was sitting in the living room of some guy named Brian Cullin, the president of the board, with Susan having an initial interview. By the middle of September I had been interviewed by the majority of the board members and eventually offered the job. Then I had the ultimate test…I was asked to lunch by Alan Gilmore and Eric Jirgens…two of the many incredibly gracious and giving people I was about to meet on this amazing adventure as I stepped into the role of Executive Director at Affirmations.
Having spent the previous 17 years running a non-profit and then being able to use my skills to grow an organization that I believe had literally saved my life was truly a gift. I was energized like I had never been in my career. My first board meeting I announced to the board that we needed a new building. We were serving 200 people a week and I knew we couldn’t grow to our capacity in that building…we couldn’t even serve the disability community and if you weighed more than 120 you could hardly fit in the bathroom stall! I passed out a building layout that I made on an excel spreadsheet suggesting we needed to work toward that goal. Of course they thought I was crazy.
Before anyone freaks out and thinks I am going to share this much detail about the next 11 years can relax…I am going to fast forward now.
I look back over the 11 years I spent having the honor of leading Affirmations and there are many moments that stick out in my head and most of those moments are wrapped around the people that made Affirmations and my life special.
Just a couple years after I started at Affirmations Kat LaTosch came in to volunteer to work on the newsletter. She and her partner Jen had come to the women’s rap group back when I was facilitating. As can happen at Affirmations once you put your toe in the door the sense of giving back to the community can be so rewarding that you soon realize it’s where you belong. It was one of my greatest joys to have Kat eventually come to work for Affirmations and always be my right hand, my sounding board, my critic (in a loving and supportive way) and my friend.
I know I risk missing someone but there were many people that worked with me at Affirmations that changed the course of the organization, made their mark on the community and inspired me. Michael Larson, Michael Mirto, Cass Varner, Carrie Copeland, Chris Gerlach, Jon Piechota, Knoll Larkin, Rachel Crandall, Jon Fitzgerald, Jeannine Simpson…it really was this team of people along with many others who brought Affirmations along this path. And of course the volunteers along the way: Jack, Jonathon, Michelle, Lisa, Randy, Lawrence, John…we couldn’t have done anything without them.
In my 28 year non-profit career I worked with hundreds of board members and none were as committed and generous as the board members at Affirmations. Again I am sure I will miss some names but I would not have been able to do my job had it not been for those board members who always went above and beyond to make Affirmations a better place: Nancy Katz, George Westerman, Brian Cullin, Torii Hamilton, David Light, Alice McKeague, Bill Korsak, Roger Reisdorf, Mark Blanke…
I will talk about one incident in more detail. There was a breakfast at the Original Pancake House with Brian Cullin, George Westerman, Jan Stevenson and me…we decided at that breakfast back in August of 2002 Affirmations needed a new building and we were going to get it done. We figured we would raise the money, build the building and be moved in within a year to eighteen months. I mean how hard could it be, I still had my excel floor plan. A fortuitous breakfast with Tito Gutierrez from the Kresge Foundation was like a big ol’ reality slap upside the head. But we took our time, found the right people to be on our team…people like Carolyn Burdi, Brian Hurtienne, and Don Williamson and we learned HOW to do a capital campaign. And we had the good sense to hire Michael Mirto as our staff leadership on the campaign and cajole George Westerman into being the volunteer leadership. What we once thought would be a 12 -18 month project turned into five years and on April 9, 2007 we opened the doors to this beautiful facility we are standing in now. It’s a little different from the excel drawing I did but I think we did okay, don’t you?
This job was like the gift that kept on giving. I was appointed to the board of CenterLink, the national association of LGBT community centers where I had the honor of meeting my peers doing amazing work all over the country. Through fundraising efforts I met incredibly generous donors who keep these doors open. I met straight allies who are really the people that are going to change the rights of LGBT people…like Beth & Rob Correa, Cathy Lamont & Michael Donovan, Lorna & Jud Utley… I got to meet political leaders…who would have thought I would have been quoted in the Free Press as saying Jennifer Granholm was hot and then STILL get invited to her private home for a reception? Debbie Stabenow, Gilda Jacobs, Gary Peters…and then last June I was selected to be one of five people representing LGBT community centers to go to a reception at the East Wing of the White House with President Obama… truly a life altering experience.
I always thought I would retire from Affirmations. I just thought I would be a bit older. But many of you know I have been plagued with chronic back problems for many years. Six back surgeries have taken their toll and it had become increasing harder for me to keep up the pace needed to run an organization of this size. I realized over the summer last year that I was no longer the right person to steer this ship. I thought I had five more months in me to give the organization a chance to find new leadership but at an appointment with my back doctor on September 1st he said no more. Of course this was after I had gotten him to become a Center Partner…
2010 had already been a year of great change for me. Realizing the love on my life had been around Affirmations longer than I had and we just needed to make the connection. Losing my brother to a stroke and then unexpectedly being told I couldn’t work anymore. Having Cindy by my side for all this change and her unconditional support through my physical struggles has been the greatest gift I have ever gotten.
This celebration today and having you all here just brings home that my 11 years at Affirmations was a gift. Affirmations isn’t really a building – it’s a community. And you are all members of that community. Affirmations and those of you who are a part of it will always be a part of me. Thank you for allowing me to serve you and give back.