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Happy birthday, Center on Halsted

Center on Halsted CEO reflects on 5 years of work in Boystown

(Lenny Gilmore/Redeye )
May 10, 2012|By Georgia Garvey, RedEye

If you're gay and living in Chicago, you've probably been to the Center on Halsted.

In the five years since it first opened in Boystown, the community center has evolved into a hub for LGBT Chicagoans. From senior services to youth programming, it offers clients a menu of health, sports, cultural and recreational events that draw people from all over.

Billed as the largest of its kind in the Midwest, the center will celebrate its transition from fledgling facility to LGBT institution with the Human First gala May 12, an annual event that is particularly special this year. Celebrities includingk.d. langand Andy Cohen will perform, and 1,500 party-goers are expected. The official anniversary of the center's opening will take place on June 1, but as the center reflects on the time passed, RedEye took the opportunity to chat with CEO Modesto Tico Valle.

Valle has been with the center since before its opening, working as a volunteer, a member of the board of directors and in other positions along the way. He discussed with RedEye the long road to opening the center, which sprang from Horizons Community Services – an LGBT social service agency formed in the '70s – more than a decade ago. Valle also offered some opinions on what keeps the facility so central to the gay community in Chicago.

What's the significance of the Human First gala, particularly this year with the five-year anniversary?

It's an opportunity to go back and honor those who had the vision to create this model for the country. Human First is always an opportunity for us to recognize individuals who have gone beyond the call of duty to really advance the mission of the center and to advance the movement, the LGBT movement, and five years makes it even a little bit more special.

What were some of the issues when you were trying to open the center five years ago?

There were a couple of concerns. One, making sure that this project was transparent to the community, and transparent because Chicago had two false starts creating a community center. So there was some hesitancy. [Like,] 'Here we go again. Will the monies be used the right way? Can we raise the money?' It wasn't so much Horizons [Community Center] who had embarked upon that journey, but other organizations and, for whatever reasons, it never materialized for the creation of a center. So transparency was a concern of ours, to make sure the community was informed every step of the way and that we were bringing them along in the process.

Any other major concerns?

The other part was, once we would create it, could we sustain it? Would people come to it? And so there was a lot of intentional programming that took place prior to the center opening. ... We did all that work two years prior to the center opening, so that when the doors would open, there would be this buzz of activity happening at the center. That we were starting from the beginning, but that the doors were opening and the people were going to come and engage in the programming. And that has really paid off, all that intentional work. We see the benefits of that work today because of the 1,000 people who walk through the doors every day.

In your opinion, what's one of the center's strengths?

I would always put the staff front and center, because the success of the center is really that we have a staff that is client-centric. ... [Also] I look at the expansive array of programming and I'm proud to see where our senior program has landed. ... We started off senior programming with eight individuals two years before the center opened and today we're seeing 150 seniors and we're now embarking on senior housing next door with [social service provider] Heartland [Alliance] housing. And in five short years? That's been remarkable.

What's one of the big successes in the last five years?

I think the recreational sports have been tremendous. During the leagues, about 100 individuals are participating in sports. And that was a response from the community, because they wanted an alternative to the bars. And so to be able to walk in on any given night and see volleyball, basketball, hockey, soccer, table tennis and there are 75 to 100 individuals who are connecting, making new friendships, that whole wellness model of taking care of oneself, lifting one's self esteem up, that is thriving.

How has the center made itself an institution in Chicago so rapidly?

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