The oldest LGBT counseling center in Florida celebrated a major renovation Thursday that allows for more space for testing, advocacy, and support.
The Center served as the epicenter after the Pulse shooting, where hundreds of volunteers helped victims and their families as well as the community members heal after the tragedy.
The $300,000 renovation expanded the Center from its original 1,200-square feet to nearly 2,000. It includes three new rooms for AIDS, Hepatitis C and STD testing, a waiting room and a Cyber Center with four computers and a printer. A grand room was also added to host community events and 23 support groups.
The expansion took more than three years to complete and was delayed by a contractor that walked off the job. The cost was covered by a $147,000 community development block grant and donations.
“It’s amazing that you dealt with this renovation after the largest mass murder in our country’s history,” said Orlando Commissioner Patty Sheehan, who helped The Center get grant money through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “There are not enough words of gratitude to express what you’ve done for our community during the past 14 months.”
Sheehan told a crowd of 150 who attended the event that The Center started four decades ago with a group of volunteers who helped people with HIV and AIDS when no one else would.
“This has been a place of stability, especially during the toughest time in this city’s history,” said state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith. “Florida ranks first and Orlando is fifth in the nation in HIV diagnosis. The Center makes sure that our most vulnerable have access to free prevention and treatments. It provides a beacon of hope to our community.”
The Center, located in a 1941 post-modern building at 946 N. Mills Avenue, was due for a renovation. It had a leaky roof, an air-conditioner that no longer cooled and a lack of space for staffers and volunteers.
The center was the heartbeat of the volunteer operation following the Pulse tragedy, when more than 600 volunteers a day poured in to offer help.
Thalia Ainsley was one of those volunteers who showed up for the celebration.
“This place helps people be who they want to be,” said Ainsley, who attends a transgender support group at the center. “It has been a safe haven.
The expansion includes room for new programs at The Center, including GED instruction, Older Wiser Learning classes for seniors and cooking and candle-making classes.
“The community finally has a home now,” said Terry DeCarlo, the center’s former executive director who now serves as chief communications director.