WHEN GALAEI decided to move from Center City to North Philadelphia in April, the queer Latino social-justice organization was eager to be part of the community.
Ideally, their new neighbors would feel comfortable dropping by the home on 149 W. Susquehanna Ave. for a chat and a tour of the old house with tons of character. In the process, they'd get to know the staff, and learn more about the services the 26-year-old nonprofit organization offers the LGBT community.
No appointment. No impersonal office building. Just another neighbor eager to spread the word about how they were "working for and in the community," said executive director Elicia Gonzales.
And then, even before their official open house from 5:30 to 9 tonight, something happened that showed just how right the move was:
A couple of guys dropped by. One thought the building still housed the Norris Square Civic Association, which has moved across Norris Square Park. They took a tour of the old house, still being cleaned and painted. As they walked through the rooms, they learned that GALAEI offered HIV testing and one man decided to go ahead and get tested.
"He was positive," said Gonzales, as she showed me around. "He took it hard, but we were able to link him into care right away."
"They could have walked into Center City, but nobody knew we were there," Gonzales said. "Because it was an office building, they had to get past the security guard, and it was an office space, it didn't feel like the vibe we're trying to create. We want people to be able to come here for no reason other than they want to be around people who look like them, who have a similar experience like them."
Most organizations would kill to have prime Center City space. But for years, GALAEI has been eyeing a move to be closer to the Latino population it serves.
"For a long time I felt that we should be going to the community, the community shouldn't be coming to us," said board president Rafael Alvarez Febo. "Now that we are in the neighborhood, we can engage with people from where they are and where they need the services."
The three-story house in West Kensington was a great fit, even if the fact that it used to be the Fluehr Funeral Home freaks some people out. It's big enough to grow into. It's close to several transit lines. It's less expensive than their downtown site, and it's a block away from El Centro alternative high school, where many of the youths they serve are students. "I can see it from my office window," Gonzales said.
The day I dropped by unannounced - hey, that's the whole point! - 18-year-old El Centro student Emmanuel Coreano was there.
Coreano came from a religious family that struggled to accept that he was bisexual when he came out in 2012.
In GALAEI, he found a safe and affirming place, and he's been dedicated to it ever since. "I consider myself like a little intern," he semi-joked.
It wasn't unusual to see him at the old offices, which he used to reach by a 15-minute train ride. But now that the offices are just a short walk from his home and school, he's there even more.
"It definitely feels more like a home than the other office," Coreano said.
And that's the point, Gonzales stressed. "We want people to feel at home, to feel like they are part of the family."
Or, put another way: GALAEI's casa es su casa.
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