Hotspots Exclusive Interview with Robert Boo
The Pride Center at Equality Park has served the needs of the Broward County LGBT community for over 20 years, and in that time tens of thousands of people have been directly impacted by the center’s services, resources and events.
This past year was one of the best ever, not just in terms of money raised, but also in terms of the scope of the services we’ve all come to expect from The Pride Center. For example, the HIV testing and counseling project, which already tests more people for HIV per year than the hospitals in Broward County combined, is now bringing their services directly to the most vulnerable parts of our community.
A lot of the expansion The Pride Center has seen recently has been due in large part to the work and leadership of Chief Executive Officer Robert Boo. Since arriving at The Pride Center nine years ago, the number of paid staff has increased sixfold — a true testament to how beloved The Pride Center is to the community, and how in-demand its services are every single day.
I spoke to Robert Boo in this exclusive Hotspots interview. He talks about what it’s like to work a day at his job, what a thrill the past twelve months have been, and how 2015 will be even better.
How successful of a year was 2014 for The Pride Center?
We just completed our audit for the fiscal year 2014 and we had an oustanding year fiscally. Socially, we could not have been any busier than we were through the calendar year of 2014. We have added so many programs and town hall educational theories. Our coffee and conversation group, which meets every Tuesday, must see at least 150 or 200 people coming in on a weekly basis. If you’ve ever been here on a Tuesday morning, you’re going to have to go out to the warehouse and the river to find any available parking!
Take me through a normal work day for you. What is it like to oversee such a big center with so many resources and services?
On a typical day, I am working and interacting with our clients down at the cyber center. We have ten computer workstations down there that are free to use, and people who go there to use the computers either don’t have a computer at home, or in some cases, they don’t have a home, period. We have 250 volunteers who assist us through our daily activities, our special events and our programs. They make everything run smoothly.
Then I’m also working with donors and prospective donors, cultivating our relationship with donors and businesses. Our Founder program has grown so much. In 2006 when I came here, we had 70 Founders. Now we have over 285, and those are businesses and individuals who have invested in the Center. They help us keep the lights on and they ensure that the Center is running.
We have a number of programs that are funded by the CDC and the Department of Health, and those have continued to grow. Over the last couple of years, we now have five grants from the Department of Health, so that requires constant monitoring and coaching with staff. Luckily I have Kristofer Fegenbush who is a great COO. He’s smart and organized and he’s very personable. Everyone knows Kristofer, and I think we make a great team because our strengths complement one another. Plus, we have a lot of fun and we love what we do!
Part of The Pride Center’s mission is to celebrate and empower the community. How did it feel to celebrate marriage equality day?
It was absolutely exciting to witness history. The progress that we have seen over the last couple of years, at times, seems to be at hurricane force, especially compared to other civil rights movements that have occurred in the past. When Florida finally legalized marriage equality, it was history in the making. I’m so happy to see all of those couples happy, especially the ones who had to fly to another state, only to not have it recognized in Florida? Now that it is recognized and legal, it is a joy to see, and you’ll also notice that in another year gay marriage is just going to be commonplace.
Tell us about your HIV testing and counseling programs. How can people get tested and take advantage of these services?
We perform more HIV tests in the county on a monthly basis than the hospital districts do. We not only provide HIV testing at the Center seven days a week, we also go out to targeted communities in the county. With Broward County ranking either #1 or #2 in the country with regard to new HIV infections, it’s obvious that past practices haven’t been working. If they had been working, the infection rates would be going down, but they’re not. So we had to become more creative as far as how we reach target markets.
The last couple of grants we’ve received from the Department of Health in Broward County has allowed us to reach communities of color. So we go to businesses like shopping centers and barbershops and dry cleaners, where people actually live and shop, and do our outreach, prevention, and HIV testing there.
What are some of the compliments people have paid The Pride Center that have really touched you?
When we purchased this property back in 2008, the common belief out in the community was that we bit off more than we could chew, especially considering the purchase happened during one of the worst economic times of our generation. Since then, people have been so happy to see what we’ve become and how we’ve continued to grow and evolve.
One of the things we really hoped the Center would become is a place where people can celebrate life, commitments, and I guess, now, weddings. One of the first celebrations of life we held at The Pride Center was for Jan Carpenter, who was instrumental in managing the project of moving from the old Center to the new Center. He managed that whole process for us, and it was his vision that celebrations of life could be presented there, and it ended up that one of those celebrations was for Jan Carpenter. The compliment here is that we’ve fulfilled the needs of the community. I really have to credit Carol Moran, because she says the Center is the “kitchen of the community.” Like at a party, people huddle in the kitchen. It’s where everyone gathers.
What’s in store for The Pride Center in 2015?
The Pride Center is going back and looking at our master plan for the campus. We’re looking at what is the best use of our 5 1/2 acres for our future growth, future plans and future services. What are the possibilities for us to expand and allow us to build a multi-use conference space on the campus? Should we make it a new project? Should we incorporate two of our warehouses? We want to make sure that the community’s needs are met now, but also in five, ten, fifteen, and twenty years from now.
There’s also a huge trend nationwide of affordable senior housing associated with LGBT community centers, like in Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, San Diego, and Philadelphia. We’re looking into this, figuring out how it fits into our mission, and if we can incorporate that into Wilton Manors.
I’m also very proud to announce that we are collaborating with the Harvey Milk Foundation on a fundraiser that’s coming up in May. I am excited to bring these two organizations together. This would be the first time that Stuart Milk and his organization has collaborated with an organization in South Florida, so I am very excited that the Center has the chance to partner with them.