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26 Oct 2020

Creating Connections: Mike Thompson, the CEO of the LGBTQ Community Center of the Desert, on Expansion, Financial Stability and COVID-19 Lessons

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CEO Mike Thompson said he hopes construction on the LGBTQ Community Center of the Desert’s building will be completed by the end of January. CEO Mike Thompson said he hopes construction on the LGBTQ Community Center of the Desert’s building will be completed by the end of January. Courtesy of The Center

In November 2016, Mike Thompson, the CEO of the LGBTQ Community Center of the Desert, joined his staff and the organization’s board of directors to officially welcome the public to the Center’s new home—the McDonald/Wright Building, located at 1301 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs.

“The Center has a big vision to truly be a community center for LGBT people living in the Coachella Valley,” Thompson told the Independent in 2015, when the purchase of the building on behalf of the Center, by John McDonald and Rob Wright, was announced. “We’ve already outgrown the space we’re in.”

In the years that followed, the Center and its supporters spent millions of dollars turning the building into a true community hub for the Coachella Valley’s LGBTQ residents—so much so that the Center needed to recently embark on more construction, to expand the usable spaces within the building.

Then came COVID-19. Four years after that triumphant ribbon-cutting, the Center’s doors have now been closed to the public for more than seven months.

I recently spoke to Thompson about the sudden and shocking conversion he and his staff had to make from operating a physical community center, to running a largely virtual, online community center. We also talked about the building’s ongoing construction; preparations to eventually reopen; and the Center’s efforts to bolster its offerings to LGBTQ residents valley-wide—especially in the eastern Coachella Valley.

The LGBTQ Community Center of the Desert has put a lot of time and effort, justifiably so, into this big, beautiful building. However, since March, you’ve had this big, beautiful building that people can’t go into. Talk to me about the task of taking the Center from physical to virtual.

We like to say that while our doors are closed, our hearts are open. We understand that we have a responsibility in caring for our community, and we will be slow in reopening our physical doors. So we’re taking this time when our doors are closed to prepare the space for when it can be reopened.

What does that actually mean? We’re fitting all our community rooms to be able to accommodate both in-person participants and virtual participants. In every community room, there will be two monitors. One monitor is on the facilitator, and then other is projecting back the in-person participants. So anyone that joins remotely can feel that he, she or they is part of the physical space.

We’re reallocating how the space is used, because we are moving our Behavioral Health Clinic from 750 square feet to 2,800 square feet on our second floor. It’s going from four therapy offices to 10 therapy offices, plus two group-therapy spaces. That frees up a space on our third floor that will be a conference room. … We found ourselves competing with our own programming for space use, because everybody was using the Center—which is what it was designed for. … We’re making sure we’re able to accommodate people, both in person and virtually, because we know when we do reopen, there will be reduced capacity.

We’re undergoing an extensive construction project where people couldn’t even access the building if they wanted to. So, actually, if there’s any silver lining in this downtime, it’s that it has allowed us to really focus on all the construction without the interference of risking the safety of our staff or guests with our doors being open.

How much of this was planned before COVID, and how much of this has been planned since COVID?

The entire reconstruction was planned pre-COVID. In fact, we were beginning about the time that the shutdown began. Now, how we plan for the future—that’s all a result of COVID. We’re putting UV lighting in our (heating and cooling) system, to make sure the air that is circulated through the Center is as clean and healthy as possible, so that when people come here, their risk is mitigated. We’re trying to eliminate as many touchpoints as possible. Urinals and water fountains—all that stuff is going to be new and touchless. We’re even going to a QR code. … When you come in, you scan your QR code that lets us know that you’re here, but only after you’ve come up to a body-temperature kiosk.

So, let’s say you want to come to this Eisenhower presentation on a Wednesday night (after we reopen). We’re only going to let X number of people into the space, so we’ll ask you to go online and fill out a form; it will reserve your spot. Once we’ve identified that the physical spaces are allocated, we’ll then direct people to sign up for the virtual participation. … So, after people come in and use their QR code, if something were to happen during your time here, we can now track everybody that’s been here during a particular time of day.

So that could be used for COVID-19 contact tracing, for example?

Exactly.

When do you anticipate the construction being completed?

We’re saying the end of January, but actually, in the second-floor clinic, they’re painting the baseboards, so the second-floor project is almost done. … New elevators are going in at the beginning of the year as well.

Let’s say Feb. 1 is the date that construction is done. Do you anticipate being able to open your doors by then? I know I’m asking you to predict the future.

Given that the majority of our members and clients are in groups that are most vulnerable (to COVID-19), we want to make sure that we’re not too quick out of the gate. We’re going to follow our health-care professionals and city officials about when they believe it is safe to reopen. … We talk about how there’s our physical well-being that we need to care for—and follow protocols and precautions—and then there’s also our mental health and well-being. What’s the balance? How do we meaningfully create opportunities for people to connect?

Do you worry that the formalities—the temperature-check kiosk, the QR codes, the distancing, the fact that fewer people might be able to come to the Center for that Eisenhower lecture on a Wednesday night—could hinder the “community” part of the community center?

I hope not. I’m encouraged because on these virtual programs that we have going, people are able to join us from any number of places. We’ve got people from Seattle, and Chicago, and Wisconsin, and Northern California who are joining. I was on one last week with a small group of people, and one of the gentlemen was older, and he said, “I’ve been able to do more since the pandemic than I was prior, because my physical condition just didn’t allow me to do so many things. Now, I feel more connected than I did before, because I can sit in on a new number of things virtually.” So I think we have to be mindful that “connection” means different things to different people.

So how do we create the most meaningful opportunities possible? The thing that I’ve heard people miss the most is the monthly Center Social. … You can’t re-create that virtually. I don’t know that there is a replacement for that.

Let’s talk about the financial aspect of this. Your two big fundraising events this year, Red Dress/Dress Red and Center Stage, have been cancelled. First, are they going to come back? Are they going to be different? Second, talk about the financial impact the cancellations have had.

The only event that we are going to do virtually is our Wreath Auction. We didn’t want to do Center Stage in a virtual format, because we wanted to maintain the integrity of that event for when we bring it back. Certainly, we want to do the same with the Red Dress Party, because you can’t replicate that in a different format. … So rather than think about events in the short term, we’re focusing on individual philanthropy. We’ve got a broad and deep donor base, and the majority of our fundraising right now is all targeted individual fundraising. We’ve got our Ocotillo Club, which is our annual and monthly sustaining donor group. They have been consistently generous and faithful, which has been great. In fact, we’ve had a number of new Ocotillo Club donors step in. We’ve also had Ocotillo Club donors increase their level of giving because they had the capacity to do so.

As a community center, we wanted to be really careful. We’ve not publicly had our hand out since the pandemic, because we wanted to make sure that people feel safe and secure first. Now we will be asking for money at points along the way, but we’re going to be doing it differently. Certainly, programs like our Community Food Bank have gotten a big increase in support, (and we’ve gotten) gifts targeted or earmarked for our Behavioral Health Clinic, because those are two things that people know there’s a demand for during this time.

So financially, the Center is doing OK?

We’re in a good, stable place. Even with this construction project, it was paid for before we even started the project. I don’t feel vulnerable at this point. We don’t know what the future is going to hold, but today, I’m comfortable with the decisions that we’ve made, how we’re doing fundraising, and how the community responded.

Tell me about some of the lessons you’ve learned from this pandemic, and how those lessons might lead to better things in the future.

We have said all along that our work has to be relationship-focused … and we’re constantly reminding each other that nobody’s more important than the person in front of us right now. We made a format change in our weekly newsletter; we’re looking at that as an opportunity to engage people just by the questions that we’re asking. At one point early in the pandemic, we were asking people: Do they have access to food? If they said no, then we made sure that they became a client at our Food Bank if they could benefit from that. If they needed people to bring them food—if they couldn’t get to the grocery store for whatever reason—we would make sure that people could get it to them.

The one question that we asked that broke my heart was: Do you have somebody to talk to everyday? The people who responded “no”—that auto-generated an email that said, “Would you like somebody to call you?” So those people who then said “yes,” I personally called. My shortest phone call was probably 25 minutes. They averaged 40 to 45 minutes.

That’s awesome and heartbreaking at the same time.

It is. I still get emotional. … We already had this program ready to launch before the pandemic; we’d been kind of massaging it, but the pandemic accelerated our … buddy program.

That whole idea is: How do we get personal with people? These 7,000-plus people that get our newsletter every week—how do we talk to them in a way where it feels personal, that whatever their need is, they feel they can reach out to us and ask us for help? So that’s, I think, our biggest lesson here—not to get distracted by a building project. We need to be innovative in the way we do programs and to remember that, at the core, it is about relationships.

I know the Center in recent years has been making an effort to reach out further into the Coachella Valley’s LGBTQ community—especially in the east valley. What steps has the Center has made to keep reaching out to the east valley?

We’ll be making more announcements about that soon, but I can say this for now: We recently announced our domain name has changed to TheCenterCV.org to better represent the scope of our work across the Coachella Valley; before, it had been TheCenterPS.org. Not only is that representative of our current work, but our future work, because we’ve got our eye across the valley to make sure that queer people, wherever they are in the Coachella Valley, have access to our programs and services.

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