FERNDALE — When Dave Garcia came back to his old job as Executive Director of Affirmations community center after five years working for the nation's largest LGBTQ community center in the nation, his return was lauded as a lifeline for an organization that had lost money and quality staff in his absence.
And in spite of government mandates, shutdowns and myriad economic challenges relating to the novel coronavirus pandemic, Garcia and his team have had many successes. He and members of the board of directors held a community update meeting Thursday via Zoom to share these points of pride, as well as what's on the horizon for the coming year.
While Affirmations is known for its support services provided to the LGBTQ and ally community, those services are not sustainable without funding.
When Garcia left the position in 2014 to work for the Los Angeles LGBT Center as the director of public policy and community building, Affirmations was in solid financial shape and was on the way to paying off their mortgage on their Downtown Ferndale building. The momentum didn't continue in his absence, however, and a string of new directors ran the budget down, leaving in their wake cutbacks of hours, staff and services.
The immediate task upon his return was to tackle the economic health of the organization. Affirmations had less than $68,000 in its bank account in April of 2019. Today, it's up to over $400,000.
There's also a $65,000 Fidelity account and over $100,000 in the Building for the Future Fund, which has restricted uses and is not part of cash flow.
"You're all development now," Garcia told the staff, meaning that every team member would need to be mindful of ways to attract revenue, particularly with grant funding, donations and monetizing some services.
For example, Affirmations has long been a place for counseling, which is done on a sliding-scale basis and includes patrons who do not need to pay. Uplifting the program to begin accepting insurance and increasing the number of counselors is one way the LGBTQ center is bringing in more revenue without limiting access for the low-income folks who need help.
Moving forward, health care will be a key focus, Garcia said.
"I have always wanted Affirmations to grow in health and human services," he said. "Not only because it's the right thing to do for our community when we're under the threat of religious exemption, not only because it's the right thing to do for our community when you're just talking about scientifically accurate culturally competent care for our trans community and our seniors for example, but because when I'm long gone I think it is financially stable for the organization to have primary care for people to be seeing their doctor there, [and] for people to be seeing their therapist there. … It would be nice to be generating our own income off the building that you – the community – owns."
In Los Angeles, 80% of the organization's efforts stemmed from health and human services programs. Not only are such programs critical for individuals, they bring in money from fees, grants and partnerships. A "Health for All" program is expected to be rolled out in the first quarter of 2021.
"We have created a community consortium of care that has many partners," Garcia said.
Negotiations are still in the works with some providers and the details will be announced early next year. The emphasis on health will not harm other services or programs, Garcia assured.
"When I say shift [to a health focus], I don't mean we're going to lose anything, I just mean we're going to grow in this area." he said. "It will open revenue streams from local, state, and county revenue dollars."
In addition to monetizing services and aiming for health-related revenue, Affirmations has had a strong focus on fundraising, which is no easy task in a year when gatherings are banned.
"We lost the Black Tie event — that's $100,000 right there," Garcia said.
However the loss of events also helped spur more online giving, and after hosting several online programs including an online gala, a virtual bike ride and a nine-hour telethon. For now, it seems the organization is starting 2021 in a good place. Recently, the board passed the annual budget of $800,000. Garcia called it "conservative" and "responsible," as is it is just $50,000 more than last year, because Affirmations is assuming that COVID-19-related closures will continue through the year. However, if in-person gatherings resume, event revenue can be added to that total.
Garcia said the most common question he faces is, "When will the building be open?" His response is simple: "When it is safe to do so."
However, Garcia said that the $400,000 Affirmations has in terms of cash flow represents six months of operating expenses and called it a "very healthy position to be in."
"This has been one of the most challenging years … but we are doing our best and we are more than keeping our head above water and that is because of your support," he said. "But we need a strong financial push for the end of the year campaign to solidify the financial strength of our organization."
Like many gathering spaces, Affirmations closed its doors in the spring to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It switched from in-person groups like AA, Senior Coffee Klatch, transgender support, and teen groups to online ones. And while meeting virtually cannot replace the in-person comfort and support provided by those events, going virtual has had some promising effects.
"Having to go online was not easy. It was rough. Remember, in the beginning, when people were Zoombombing … with a bunch of anti-LGBT language and we had to initiate passwords and phone calls and staffing so they could get in the rooms. It was a learning curve for us," Garcia said. "But you know what? It's kind of a silver lining."
He cited that youth- and trans-focused groups have now begun to reach people in more rural areas of Michigan. In fact, he thinks that Zoom will be around to stay.
"And, frankly, when we get back to normal — whatever normal's gonna look like — I think we will have some type of hybrid moving forward with this Zoom technology allowing us to reach seniors all over the state and Great Lakes region and further," he said.
Another Affirmations service that has taken off during the pandemic is providing food to those in need. Each week, people of any orientation, income or background may pull up to the back of the community center to receive a box of food.
"We've served 3,800 meals to our community since COVID," Garcia said.
The center also partnered with Ferndale-based business LIV to give away 20 turkeys for Thanksgiving. As the need continues through the winter, donations of canned and boxed items are welcomed. Affirmations is also continuing with its free HIV testing and counseling programs, which are available by appointment.
Advocating for LGBT equality continues to be a priority for Affirmations. While there have been great strides in social acceptance, marriage equality and some non-discrimination advances, the biggest threat according to Garcia is the "religious exemption," which means that businesses can refuse service to someone who is LGBTQ because of their religious beliefs.
An oft-cited example is a baker refusing to make a cake for a same-sex couple because homosexuality is against their religion. However, there are also cases where discrimination based on religious exemptions can mean life or death — such as a doctor refusing to see a child because their parents are gay, or those who deny basic food and shelter to other human beings simply because of who they love.
Garcia explained that with a conservative-led Supreme Court, religious exemption cases could help carve out a path for continued institutionalized discrimination. Keeping patrons informed of issues like religious exemptions, and abreast of the latest developments, is also part of the work that organizations like Affirmations take on.
Working with other LGBTQ community centers is also a priority, especially in light of such organized political forces against them. Garcia is on the board of CenterLink, which connects centers across the county. And, last year, he helped form the Community Center Network for organizations statewide such as the Jim Toy Center in Ann Arbor and Pride Center in Grand Rapids. This makes Michigan only the second state, following Pennsylvania, to have a statewide organization for their centers.
"We need to continue to work closely with our sister orgs," Garcia emphasized.
Collaborations can help centers save money through collective purchases and research, aid foster education and strength by sharing ideas and increases political power by having more citizens connected.
Affirmations is starting 2021 with a small but determined staff. There are team members focusing on youth, communications, operations, finance and development. There is also to be a new program director hired early next year. Add this to increased numbers of interns – many working from home – and, of course, the donors and slew of people who volunteer to run the support groups and activities, and Garcia is optimistic about the future.
"I remember when we got that first audit back and we were back in the black and we were all excited, and then COVID hit," he said. "We closed the doors and myself and community centers around the country were worried."
But as Affirmations continues to adapt and thrive, both he and the board continue to share a passion and enthusiasm that is contagious in all the areas where the center continues to grow.
"I'm proud of that," he said. "That is the staff, the board and all of you and the donors making sure that Affirmations succeeds."