By John Hayden
After a dark year for so many, SunServe continues to shine in South Florida. They’ve spent the past few months turning challenges into opportunities, raising their technology game, and connecting with the community more than ever before. In a time when many organizations had to cut critical programs, SunServe stayed open and learned lessons that are going to help them be better than ever as we settle into the new normal.
“Technology [was key] for us,” Executive Director of Operations Gary Hensley told us. “We went from the old system to the new, and we would never go back to the old system at this point because this works so much better.” While many of us were learning to video conference, SunServe was using the technology to reach their clients.
Mental health resources are one of SunServe’s biggest needs, and Gary says patients and doctors being able to meet virtually is one of the new ideas that’s here to stay. “I really believe that telehealth for mental health is going to continue.” He also says it solves a logistical problem that’s been around since long before COVID. “More people are making their appointments because they don’t have to travel. They find it so much more convenient to be able to do the visit on their phone. We’ve made the process easier which is a big positive.”
It’s all part of SunServe’s longstanding mission to provide life and mental health assistance to members of South Florida’s LGBTQA+ that are often left behind by society including struggling youth, seniors, and those in financial trouble. Their philosophy promises to be “advocates for strong inclusive families, and healthy relationships in all their diverse forms within and across the generations as well as professional volunteer agents for development and change. We are committed to provide quality affordable counseling, psychotherapy, education, and outreach to all regardless of their ability to pay.”
SunServe also has new leadership. Gary has been with SunServe for years and took over Executive Director duties last summer. After six years on the board, James Hipps stepped down to serve as Chief Human Resources Officer in May 2020, and Terry Dyer joined the organization as Director of Development in December 2020. Goal number one for the new leadership team is to get out in the community like never before. “In the past we’ve only had one fundraiser, that was the AIDS Walk, and that was all we did. I always thought that we should do more and be in the community, increase our visibility, and develop community partners.”
Terry believes this is the perfect moment to get out and about. “People are more open to coming out to events. The community here is getting vaccinated and people are getting more comfortable.”
Terry says people are already taking notice. “One of our biggest and most successful events in the last few months has been the Revival Gospel Sunday Brunch at Hunters Nightclub Wilton Manors. We have that coming up again July 11, 2021.” That success is being followed by more opportunity. “We have several other bars that have come knocking on our doors to say, ‘Hey, you guys have this, you’ve done this.’ We are taking those opportunities to get ourselves back out in the community and reconnect with the community post-pandemic. This also profiles our services in ways we have not done previously.”
Many donors, corporate and individuals, were forced to cut back on charitable giving, but like so many other things this year, SunServe turned the challenge into opportunity. “I think the biggest thing is we’ve had to get creative in the pandemic. Funds have depleted for many organizations and we’ve had to think outside the box because we’re all vying for the same funds from the city and county. But there’s also that grass roots approach that we’ve been doing with all of these events.”
He also believes the pandemic made people appreciate all SunServe’s been doing for a generation. “I think folks in the community and corporate folks have realized just where we have been in the past year and how much more important it is to give because people need the services much more than they probably did before the pandemic, especially the mental health services.”
James says a year-round presence just makes sense. “We provide services year round, the need never stops. I think we should be out in the community and that’s part of the new vision here. We do want a stronger presence in the community.” Many people don’t know just how much SunServe does. “Our Senior Daycare Center is a huge program here in the organization that’s housed at Sunshine Cathedral,” says Terry. In fact, it’s one of the original projects that gave SunServe its start nearly 20 years ago.
In addition to that and mental health services, they also help clients with other basic but critical needs. Their housing case management program helps those with special medical needs find shelter. They offer substance abuse counseling as well as job education and training plus services to women, youth, and transgendered people. They believe they are just scratching the surface of what they could be doing.
SunServe’s increased visibility will lead to increased funding which means increased services. “We would like to add breadth and depth to all of our programs and add additional programs,” James says. “The only way to do that is with increased funding. The only way to get that is to be out in the community year round.” James already has ideas for programs to expand and start from scratch. “We have people who come in for services, maybe they haven’t had a meal in three days. Typically what will happen is somebody here will pull some money out of their pocket and say go get a meal.”
This proves as one of the gaps in services provided by the organization. One of the ways in which SunServe tries to mitigate this gap is providing frozen meals to those in need. Additionally, Gary states, “If they have no income or food options moving forward, we try to also provide them with an alternative solution.”
Terry says housing help would tie into expanding their substance abuse help. “There’s a huge overlap between our housing department and our substance use disorder program.” That program needs more bodies. “The two employees that are there are working to the bone to make sure the community gets the help that they need and gets services that they need and gets into rehabilitation if that’s the path. They are so busy all the time. Seeing clients, helping clients, dealing with their case files and so forth. It would be wonderful to find additional funding for that program. I think they could use additional assistance.”
The team also wants to build a network of LGBTQA+ friendly employers so clients can confidently apply for jobs.
Everyone who works at SunServe puts their all into it, and each has a favorite thing that keeps them going on the harder days. “My favorite part of SunServe is seeing what we do for the clients, and seeing the letters that come in from the clients and the impact that we’ve had in their life and the assistance we’ve provided them,” says James. “The heartfelt thanks that we get from them, that we’ve actually changed their life for the better. You can’t go home at night and not have a smile on your face if you’ve seen that.”
For Gary, who started working with clients in 2013, says it’s the relationships. “My joy, and the reason I’ve always worked at nonprofits is I just enjoy making a difference in people’s lives. I still have people that I worked with when I was a case manager who call me all the time just to say hi and see how I’m doing. It makes me feel good. Even though my role is totally different now, I still am connected to the clients. My whole goal is to make people’s lives better. SunServe is your one stop shop for LGBTQ+ Services in Broward County, Florida. We help people!”
Terry likes knowing that he can lighten a burden for someone else. “My not sleeping sometimes at night because I’m worrying, ‘How do we get this done?’ I’d rather go through that knowing it’s going to help at least one person at the end of the day. That lets me know I’ve done my part. I take a great deal of pride in helping the community I am a part of.”
Pride month is here, and this year it’s taking on extra meaning for SunServe. “With it being Pride month there is a sense of pride that all three of our new leaders are bringing to this organization and bringing that pride back into the organization.”
You’ll be seeing them out and about more and more as they make new partnerships with local businesses. “We are looking to build partnerships with allies and are looking to build those corporate sponsorships so it gives us a clear cut path for expansion and growth.”
You can learn more about SunServe’s mission and their upcoming events at their website SunServe.org. After a year of challenges behind them and years of growth ahead, Gary has one, clear message: “We’re here and we’re here to stay.”