MILWAUKEE — After a year of virtual programming, the MKE LGBT Community Center will finally reopen its doors. However, the center has moved to a new location: 315 W. Court St.
To celebrate, the center held a block party from 6-8 p.m. on Friday in the new location's parking lot. Several dozen people turned out.
"We have a block party, kind of, welcome to the building even though we can’t go inside quite yet," said the center's Associate Executive Director, Natalie Zaroni.
It was the first time many of the staff and volunteers could meet in person since the pandemic. The center pivoted to mostly virtual programming during that time.
"It's important for us who’ve grown up LGBTQ, me being Trans, that it's important for us to be together and to give the community a place where they can come and be safe," said Community Center Board Member Elena Dominguez.
That message really resonated with Mike Spence. He started volunteering at the center four years ago.
"I'm kind of a late bloomer, and when I came out I wanted to give back," Spence said. "I answer phones, and it's really sad sometimes when you hear about kids being kicked out of the house because they come out, and that shouldn’t be."
The organization was actually housed in the Court Street location 20 years ago. At that time, it was just a room in the building. As the center expands to nearly the entire building, it also hopes to expand its reach after an especially isolating year.
"With the LGBTQ community, one of the things, unfortunately, is a high risk of isolation. Social isolation. That's one of the reasons that we actually exist. We exist because we are a space that's safe where you can be your beautifully, authentic self," said the center's Executive Director, Amy Orta.
Over the last two decades, the center has provided critical services to Milwaukee's LGBTQ community. Today, those services include counseling, adult and youth programming, alcohol and other drugs programming and services and a name-change clinic.
"When [the center] was created, it was because there was a need to feel safe, that you could be who you are without fearing violence or attacks," Orta said.
The need for a safe space is still prevalent today. According to FBI hate crime statistics, in 2019 there were 8,812 hate crimes across the country, and about 19% of those were based on sexual orientation or gender identity bias.
"We want to be that space. We want to continue to meet the needs of the community," said Orta.
She said the new expanded space will help them serve even people across the Milwaukee area. And she wants everyone to feel welcome when the center officially opens its doors later this summer.
"You're always going to be greeted with a warm smile and you know you're wanted here," Orta said.
Sandra Zapata is the center's new Clinical Director, and her work has focused largely on reaching Spanish-speaking members of the community.
"I think being part of the LGBTQ+ community is one of those intersections that happens everywhere," Zapata said. "It doesn’t matter where you’re from, your religion, your ethnicity."
Their message is, we're here for you.
And if you need to talk, Spence may be the one who answers your call.
"The overall thing is with the center, is just when you have an opportunity to be you and be yourself, it just promotes happiness and wellness," Spence said.
The new center is set to open in July.