While most open spaces exude an emptiness, Affirmations’ 17,000-square feet in Ferndale doesn’t feel like that at all. It feels like a safe space the moment I enter it.
Like many there for Affirmations’ reopening on Aug. 2, this is my first time back in the LGBTQ+ community center since its closing in 2020. The first thing I notice is the ceiling to floor windows, the light pouring in illuminating both the space and its patrons. And like an “Oprah’s Favorite Things” episode, people are freely hugging. An array of LGBTQ+ flags hang proudly on the wall. And through CDC-recommended masks, smiles still radiate — the kind that kiss cheeks to eyes.
Undoubtedly, Affirmations gives off a particular aura. But, oddly, while all this is occurring, I feel paradoxical. I do a mental check-in: the community is warm, welcoming and genuine, and it’s this mixture that makes me feel immense pride and sadness.
It has nothing to do with the people around me. Nothing to do with the volunteers who speak so passionately about the center’s resources. And certainly nothing to do with Affirmations’ newly initiated programs.
It has everything to do, however, with the fact that a place like Affirmations would’ve helped my sister in her time of despair.
In 2018, my sister, Jozalynn Jones, took her life. She was gay, transgender, Black and a sexual abuse survivor who was trying to gain control over a mental health disorder. So, while I was touring the center with John Joanette, director of development, many times I thought, “Joz would’ve felt comforted here.”
My thoughts went back and forth between my sister and the present moment, wherein I grasped Affirmations’ rich history and new programs. Dedicated to their mission to “provide a welcoming space where people of all sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, and cultures can find support and unconditional acceptance, and where they can learn, grow, socialize and feel safe,” Affirmations continues to grow to fit its community’s needs.
So, when the center was forced to shutdown due to COVID-19, it was an uncertain time for many.
“When we shut down, I didn’t know what to expect,” reflects Dave Garcia, executive director. “I thought, ‘I’m going to have to lay off some staff.’ Nobody knew. I mean, how do you run a community center without the doors open?”
As expected, the center and staff adapted.
“We shifted everything online,” Garcia continues. “Now we’ll never go back to normal because we’re reaching too many young people in rural areas, trans people from all over the country. Lots of our groups are going to be a hybrid — either face-to-face or online.”
Now that the world is opening back up, the center’s vast space is open to all. In fact, every floor of the center is utilized to help the community in some way.
Housed on the main level is a cafe and cyber cafe, which is completely free and open to those who don’t otherwise have access to a computer or printer.
“We may be the LGBTQ+ community center, but we’re really just a community center for all,” Joanette explains. “Lots of our allies are always coming here for programs, and they can come in here to use our cyber center.”
Next to the cafe is the gallery and tucked down the hall toward the back door exit is where The Ringwald Theatre is transforming an underutilized conference room into a theater.
“We’re thrilled about our partnership with Affirmations,” says Brandy Joe Plambeck, media director and co-founder.
Like many community theaters, when COVID hit, the Ringwald was forced to close. Their partnership with Affirmations came just in time, says Plambeck.
“This is going to be our new home, so we’re outfitting it slowly but surely,” he continues. “We put some lights up and transformed the space.”
As I continue on my tour, I move on to the center’s basement, which provides many family and personal resources, including a rec room filled a pool, air hockey and more.
Further down the hall, through a vast, empty space is the STI/HIV testing facility. As we walked through, Joanette revealed the center’s plans to use the empty space to expand their behavioral health offerings.
“We’re talking about renovating this space into a medical suite for primary care, so you’ll be able to come and get all your mental and physical needs taken care of all under one roof,” he explains. “[It will be] a safe space with compassionate and accurate medical care for our community.”
My final walk-through concludes on the second floor, where the majority of Affirmations’ meeting rooms and office spaces live. There, they host Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous and Sex Anonymous meetings for the community — important resources for many of their recovering patrons.
“I come here every week, twice a week — once to volunteer, once to lead a recovery group called Smart Recovery at 10 a.m.,” says Todd Smit, a volunteer. “Smart Recovery is helping people to recover from any type of behavior. There are all sorts of folks in the meeting, and it’s a cognitive behavioral approach, an alternative to traditional approaches.”
Along with the theater opportunities, behavioral health resources and new in-person and online programs, Affirmations has also added a Sunday church service led by Metropolitan Community Church of Detroit (MCC-D).
Affirmations community center is a true beacon of hope.
“Having this open means so much to the community,” says Jennifer Johnson, a board member. “We just need to have this space for all of our intersections to come together.”
While wrapping up my time at the center, it’s Johnson’s final few comments about her deceased brother who was also transgender and Black that brings me back to my sister.
As we finish our conversation about the center’s programs, she says she wishes her brother had known about Affirmations because “they would’ve known that there’s a space for them.”
Again, I think of my sister. And I couldn’t agree more.