7 In Your Neighborhood: The Center on Halsted

March 31, 2012 9:01:28 PM PDT
The Center on Halsted is marking an important milestone. Chicago's lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender community center in Lakeview is celebrating its fifth anniversary.

It was not the first of its kind to be built in the country, but it is said to be one of the most comprehensive, and has become a model for others serving the LGBT community.

In a culinary arts program, budding young chefs are whipping up more than just lunch. hey are changing their lives.

"It's a blessing because a lot of us don't have the income to go to regular culinary programs," said class participant Lillian Robinson. "Here's a gifted, paid for program that's granted to us, this opportunity. It's a blessing."

"What most interested me was the opportunity to get my sanitation certification," said Alfredo Aviles. "With a certificate, it would give me a little push forward."

The twelve-week program, designed by Chef Dan Smith, offers basic culinary skills to those who are chronically unemployed. It's just one of the many free programs offered at the comprehensive community center that supports Chicago's lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender community.

With its free computer center, drop in playroom and open gymnasium, CEO Modesto Tico Valle said the center's goal has always been to set a welcoming atmosphere for everyone.

"I consider the Center on Halsted at Waveland and Halsted the center of diversity because at any given time, you will see richest of the rich, the poorest of the poor, the trans, families, youth, seniors all coming together under one roof and all respecting one another and that something we're proud of," Valle said.

Primarily conceived as a safe haven for the LGBT community, there are many targeted services as well, including etiquette classes for transgenders and an art therapy class for those living with HIV.

"It helps me through my HIV issues," said art therapy student Jerome Walton. "We sit around and we talk and a lot of times you find out that you're not the only one that's suffering through whatever issue or problem that you might be suffering through and also in the process of creating the art work, you feel self worth. Just like me today, I sold a painting.

The non-profit organization also offers a number of services to the aging population, such as a driver's education refresher course. It's recognition that seniors in the gay community may need additional support.

"It's really an opportunity for seniors to connect with other seniors and to have an enriching experience, especially during this time when we're seeing a lot of seniors have to be forced to go back into the closet when they are forced to go into assisted living facilities," Valle said.

The center is open seven days a week. About 1,000 people come through its doors each day.

"It is a beacon of hope for many who may be in crisis needing social services, whether it's a homeless youth or someone who needs to be connected through social media in our cyber center or someone who has been a victim of a hate crime," Valle said. "But the other end of the services, it's also a great place to make connections, to make friendships."

On May 12, the Center on Halsted will be celebrating its anniversary with a gala called "Human First." Special guests will be singer K.D. Lang and the Bravo Network's Andy Cohen. For ticket information, visit http://www.centeronhalsted.org/