When Rube Kaplan and his husband moved to Wilton Manors four years ago, they learned about The Pride Center almost immediately. At 70 years old, Kaplan was looking for programs and events geared toward seniors. That’s when they arrived at the Coffee and Conversation.
“They’re not just friends, they’re also our family,” Kaplan said. “There is more love in this room than anywhere else.”
On Tuesday mornings, The Pride Center hosts Coffee and Conversation — the largest single gathering of LGBT seniors in the U.S. On a recent June morning, they logged nearly 180 visitors. Bruce Williams, the Senior Services Coordinator for The Pride Center, said that number is actually low because “it’s out of season.”
“During season, there can be more than 200 visitors coming in and out of here on a Tuesday morning,” Williams said. “It’s a comfortable atmosphere. No one is going to pass judgment here.”
The program started 12 years ago, but only had about two dozen visitors. Now, with upwards of a couple hundred weekly visitors during the season, what changed?
“They just wanted to talk,” Williams said. “We used to have a presentation and speakers, but really, they’re here to talk to their friends.”
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In 2015, The Pride Center logged 9,000 total visitors for Coffee and Conversation. Serena Worthington, Director of National Field Initiatives for Services and Advocacy for GLBT Seniors, or SAGE, has traveled the entire country visiting senior services offered to the LGBT community. Worthington was the first to recognize the huge weekly gatherings.
“SAGE operates as the nation’s largest full-time LGBT center for seniors,” she said. “Hundreds of people pass through our door, but we don’t have 180 people come at one time for one singular purpose.”
Worthington, who is based out of Chicago, said the success of the program has a lot to do with Williams as the leader.
“He prioritizes getting people what they want and in this case, it’s visiting and talking to each other,” Worthington said. “For that community, it works beautifully.”
The Pride Center COO Kristofer Fegenbush notes that the senior services offered would not be the same without Williams.
“Without his leadership, our Senior Services programs would not exist like they do now,” Fegenbush said. “His expertise, wisdom, humor, dedication and investment of countless hours have facilitated the growth of our services.”
According to Fegenbush, attendance at senior programs have skyrocketed due to the concentration on the needs of seniors, such as healthcare, financial planning, housing, loneliness, and other issues related to age. The Center connects seniors with a multitude of resources, including long-term care and end-of-life planning.
Wilton Manors resident Saalik Cuevas and his husband Dennis Elliott are both retired teachers from New Jersey. They met Rube Kaplan and his partner not long after moving here four years ago. Cuevas said the gatherings are like family getting together.
“We’ve never been in a gathering this big on a weekly basis,” he said. “It’s very unique here.”
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Cuevas left a very active center in New York that had large gatherings, but said consistent get-togethers of LGBT seniors were never as big as they are here. After retirement, he said he was excited about getting involved.
“I left a very active community after 30 years,” he said. “But I wasn’t going to come here and just sit around. I got involved.”
The senior services at The Pride Center don’t end with Coffee and Conversation. There are daily exercise classes throughout the week offered through a partnership with the YMCA of Broward County. Last year, The Pride Center logged more than 7,000 visits to senior-centric fitness programs.
The Senior Health Expo draws more than 600 LGBT seniors, their allies, friends, and family. The program originally started out seven years ago as an assisted living project. According to Williams, many assisted living facilities didn’t allow LGBT seniors. As the project needs expanded, so did the offerings to seniors. Now, the expo sells out to exhibitors annually and it’s free to attendees.
The Pride Center and SAGE have partnered for SAGEWorks — an employment program offered to LGBT seniors — helping LGBT seniors 40 years of age and older fight ageism in the workplace with technical training and professional guidance.
“Ageism begins at 40. These programs help seniors get back into the workplace,” Williams said. “We provide skill-building, resume and interview workshops, and LGBT-friendly employers.”
In 2015, The Pride Center and SAGE USA partnered for SAGE Stories, where LGBT seniors share their personal stories on how they’ve faced homophobic interactions and overcame discrimination. Williams said he hopes these stories create awareness in young people about the realities seniors have faced over the years just because of being gay.
“They describe growing up gay in a harsh and homophobic society,” Williams said. “We hope these stories will help enlighten younger generations. People don’t realize the severity of homophobia that older LGBT people have had to live with.”
Recently, The Pride Center has teamed up with SAGE USA, Our Fund and other South Florida LGBT providers for the “Protect Our Elders” project that aims to give local senior service providers training to make their businesses more LGBT-friendly. These cultural competency course trainings will provide companies with ways to make businesses supportive and culturally proficient environments for LGBT seniors.
While some programs vary week-to-week, Williams said the success is due to listening to the audience.
“We’ve fine-tuned and found that there was a huge and need and desire for senior services,” he said.