ORLANDO, Fla. — All across Orlando, flags, murals, and artwork liven up neighborhoods during an unusually quiet Pride Month.
What You Need To Know
- The Center in Orlando open again following coronavirus closure
- It now has bi-weekly coronavirus and antibody testing
- RELATED stories:
“No, nothing feels typical right now,” said George Wallace, Executive Director at The Center.
Gone are crowded events as social distancing blocks big celebrations during the pandemic.
“It’s been very odd not to be able to have that community gathering,” Wallace said.
Now, wearing masks and undergoing temperature checks, members of the LGBT community are finding their way into the Center for health services and HIV testing.
“It’s taking a little bit longer to go through the process but you know, the demand is there, and we’re here to serve the community,” Wallace said.
At the heart of it all is Joél Junior Morales.
Starting as a volunteer at The Center years earlier, Morales now manages 300 volunteers that keep The Center going. Here, he's connecting people here to support and a community he didn’t have growing up queer in a religious family in Puerto Rico and for years after.
“I found The Center just trying to do research and just trying to connect, and when I first came here, I was like wow, this is amazing," Morales said. "They’re doing phenomenal work, I want to be a part of this."
Now, he spends his days helping others seeking out that support.
“And that’s what we do here, we try to uplift those people that didn’t have a voice or a community,” Morales said.
“He is such a cornerstone of the organization and does so much and has really made improvements in really every area he’s touched, especially with the volunteers,” Wallace said.
As Florida’s oldest LGBT center, Morales and the tight-knit team here have adapted during the COVID-19 pandemic, switching to a more digital-model for offering mental health services, creating a food pantry, and even establishing a relief fund to help those who lost jobs.
So far, they've distributed close to $30,000 to more than 300 people, including a struggling mother of three.
“When I gave her the check she was just in awe because she felt not even her own family could have helped her in that moment, not even the government could have helped her when her own community was able to help her, and that really meant a lot,” Morales said.
After being back open for more than a month now, they’re seeing a steady stream of people returning in for those services, and now, bi-weekly coronavirus and antibody tests.
Still, Morales said this is just one step in a bigger path forward in the community.
“But people still go through discrimination and hate to this day, people are still experiencing homelessness as I did because of their identities," Morales said. "So we have to continue to fight these things and not put them to the side because people need support and sometimes people on the margins need it the most."
Even through the pandemic, his drive to help others find that same connection is keeping everyone at the Center going strong during pride month and throughout the year.
“My heart has always been with the community I’m serving,” Morales said.
For more information, including how to access services, visit The Center online at www.thecenterorlando.org, on social media, or by calling 407-228-8272.