When Dave Garcia took over as executive director for Affirmations Community Center, he was given what some described as an essentially fresh start by the organization’s interim director Kevin Howley. Programming and staff had been reduced to whatever was specifically funded and the hours the center stayed open had been reduced to save money. The focus then was on how to fortify the organization’s balance sheet as they searched for their new executive director and figure out how to best manage the funding of the center.
Enter Garcia, an energetic single father with a background in journalism, teaching, activism and nonprofit administration, who arrived full of energy, ideas and collaborations. He hit the ground running with two bold announcements – longer than ever hours and membership privileges to anyone willing to pay as little as one dollar. He added new staff, with programs blossoming to attract more people to the center and more value for the community. Affirmations now provides space to multiple organizations including Agape Ministries, Transgender Detroit and Detroit Latinos. They’ve been asked to be the fiduciary for Al Gamea.
And the center has been, well…central, to creating waves of activism that have rippled through the state, with participation in projects like the LGBT Aging Coalition, the Faith Initiative and the rally held in Lansing this past January in support of gay families, after Gov. Snyder signed anti-gay legislation denying partner benefits.
The rally also saw the creation of the Community Center Network – a network that includes all the current centers operating around the state as well as those cities seeking to create a community center.
And as Garcia approaches his eighth month as the executive director, he is ready to don a black tie and tux for the center’s bigger and better Spring Bash. No, it’s not the Big Bash any more. This year there are two big bashes, Garcia said, one in Spring and one in Fall. The Spring Bash is a black tie affair at the Detroit Institute of Arts, with this year’s theme being the Art of Re-Creation. With tickets starting at $200, this event could leave some members feeling left out, so there will be a more attainable bash in the Fall as well. The Spring Bash has sold out ahead of the event this year for the first time.
Saturday’s event will undoubtedly be a celebration of the Center’s greater stability and commitment to community vibrancy. The mortgage on the multi-million dollar facility is now under 180k. “We’re in much better financial shape,” Garcia said. “Our mortgage is about $2,000 a month, which is do-able. Our donor base it up. We went from about $25,000 in the bank to $200,000 in the bank because donations have increased. We have been able to increase programming and hours with a combination of increased donors, a successful end of year appeal, staff restructuring and overwhelming response to our Spring Bash black tie.” Garcia even discovered a flaw in electrical billing that landed Affirmations with a $119,000 credit and a reduced energy cost each month.
“Funny story just from this week,” he said. “When I first got here on the job I was looking at the bills and stuff, I noticed our energy bill was $5,000 a month. I’ve been a camp director and I had entire camps that didn’t have that kind of bill. So I called DTE and asked for an energy audit, and then all of a sudden the bill went down to $1,000 a month.
“They said ‘We sent out a meter person, and they sent someone out and they changed the multiplier so you can expect to have a lower bill from now on.’ I don’t even understand what exactly a multiplier is, but I know it wasn’t something that we had anything to do with. So I said, ‘Okay well that’s great, but I want a refund. I didn’t expect them to do much, but we opened the bill last week and we’ve got a $119,000 credit. We don’t have to worry about the electric bill for a while, and that really helps.”
Solar panels and other green technology are options on the table that might further reduce the center’s reliance on the grid, saving even more money in the future.
The buzz at Affirmations isn’t just about the electric bill. There is a palpable increase in warmth and energy from the volunteers, staff and members who make it a true community center.
“The general feeling is one of excellence. I don’t think the high has diminished since Dave (Garcia) started here,” said Cass Varner, director of communications. “The center is busier and users seem happy that we’re open more hours again.”
Jack Miller, who works as the facilities manager and also puts in volunteer hours at the front desk, got misty-eyed as he spoke of the center’s resurgence. Miller is a veteran who served in both the Army and the Navy and did not come out of the closet until he was retired. “It’s neat seeing all these other groups coming in and using the place. There are so many people coming and going, all these connections being made, all this great work being done. When Dave started talking about this I thought, how cool. I can just see how all of it is working and we really are a community. I see all the resources we have under one roof and I just think, my God if I were a kid and we had a place like this, how different would my life have gone? I love my kids and my grandkids more than anything, so I can’t say that I would have changed anything. But to give young people a chance to really be themselves, and give them the support, it’s really an amazing thing. When we cut back, well nearly closed down, it broke my heart. A lot of people were crushed. Now look at what we’re able to do.”
Miller works with Jon Fitzgerald, the director of operations. Fitzgerald is in the process of calculating volunteer hours and center usages statistics for an upcoming volunteer appreciation event, but says the numbers are definitely up. “We are definitely seeing an increase in facility rentals along with other organizations starting to meet at Affirmations on a weekly or monthly basis. It is very exciting. As an employee and a community member, I am excited about the many changes that have occurred over the past seven months. During this time I have not had anyone approach me or share any negative feedback with me about the new leadership or the direction the organization; all feedback has been positive,” Fitzgerald said.
ONe of the groups benefitting from Affirmation’s new openness is Agape Spirit Life Ministries. The congregation has been holding Sunday services in the community center, although that will be stopping after next week as the group is considering shared space with another similar congregation. Whatever happens with their programming, Spirit Life and its founder Darlene Franklin are committed to supporting the center and taking advantage of all it has to offer community groups.
“I like the direction in which they’re heading,” Frankoin said. “It’s more welcoming that it ever has been. It’s more welcoming to the community for sharing the space. David is very warm, welcoming and yet a visionary. He’s not afraid to take risks to address the needs of the community and try new things. We’re going to have a conference there in May, and this is the first time I’ve formally taken volunteer trainings,” she said. “I see the new face of Affirmations being culturally diverse. That’s a benefit to all of us. We have a responsibility in the LGBT community to host events there, to use the center and to support him.”
So what are some of Affirmation’s new offerings? Advocacy-wise there are two significant new coalitions that have a home in the community center. The Faith Initiative has been organizing religious leaders and church members of multiple faiths to seek ways of bridging the gap between homosexuality and religious beliefs. And the Older Adult Coalition is building a system of support for aging community members and training care facilities to be aware of LGBT issues among their clients.
Other advocacy projects included the rally for gay families in Lansing, and an Out 4 Equality program that uses art, music, and spoken word to advocate for gay and transgender issues. There is also a legal referral service, run by Alicia Skillman. And the introduction of the nonprofit groups mentioned earlier adds multiple levels of other services and activities.
Affirmations also provides a place for youth to feel safe, connect and grow. The center provides a youth hang out space, several clubs and support groups, and a Youth Empowerment Program where young people are taught mentorship and leadership skills, and where they can develop programs that they are interested in.
There are groups for adults too, like Caring Caregivers, Men’s and Womyn’s Film Club, Alcoholics Anonymous, Gender Non-Conformists, Senior Koffee Klatch, Newly Single, Dykes on Bikes, Young @ Heart, Men’s Discussion Group, and a group for euchre.
The health and wellness programs that Affirmations are known for continue. There is HIV testing, Tobacco Free Michigan project, increased mental health counseling services and more recreational activities. Yoga has already started, and Zumba groups are in the works. The Helpline continues to be an important resource as well.
So far Garcia’s energy and ideas have been paying off for the community center. “I was on the search committee and I was privileged to be part of the group that got to meet him. He’s a really great community builder and we’ve seen a lot of expansion,” said Miller.
When asked about his first seven months, Garcia said “It’s been a challenge. I’ve really, really enjoyed working with the community and getting to know people. I’ve really enjoyed the staff. I had to make difficult choices in my first month, but we have a staff I know I can depend on.”
Moving forward, Garcia mainly wants to see Affirmations continue being a busy place.
“I would encourage more community members to get involved in any way you can. Keep increasing in volunteers and encourage people, especially those that have nonprofit experience, to join the board. There are positions open on the board and volunteering is flexible. Most importantly, come on out and use the community center. That’s what it’s there for.”