Metro Wellness & Community Centers celebrates 25 years with the Great Gatsby Gala

By : Ryan Williams-Jent
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(ABOVEMetro’s James Keane gives Watermark’s Tampa Bay team a tour of their expansion project. Photo by Jake Stevens.)

ST. PETERSBURG | Metro Wellness & Community Centers will commemorate its 25th year during their annual gala on Nov. 11, and the community it does so much to support is invited to help celebrate the organization’s landmark anniversary.

Community members can attend the organization’s Great Gatsby Gala, held at the appropriately-titled Gatsby’s, from 7:00-11:00 p.m. in Clearwater. For $50, attendees will enjoy an open bar, dinner, dancing and live entertainment, with collected funds used to support “life-changing LGBT programs for the youth, seniors, and transgender members of our community.”

Entertainment will include comedian Christine O’Leary, nominated by Curve Magazine to be one of the “50 Funniest Lesbians in America,” as well as local favorites like vocalist Jennifer Real and DJ Bill Kody.

“The Metro Gala is one of the premier Tampa Bay benefits for the LGBT community,” the non-profit advises. “Many of the services they rely on would otherwise go unfunded and simply cease to exist without your help. We provide a safe environment free from discrimination, harassment and violence, where everyone is met with understanding, acceptance and compassion. Our programs and services enrich, impact and transform thousands of lives annually.”

And they do. In its 25 years, Metro has grown from two employees to 149, complete with a $12.5 million budget in 2017. It allows them to offer HIV/AIDS treatment and counseling services, youth programs, educational opportunities, transgender services and more. They now provide aid to close to 15,000 people face-to-face, with thousands more via outreaches.

“It’s such a special anniversary,” Metro CEO Lorraine Langlois tells Watermark, “one that always allows my mind to go back to our first days.” Langlois began her work with Metro in 1993, and laughed warmly at the idea of having known the organization would someday celebrate its 25th year.

“I don’t think anyone thought about anything other than what we had in hand,” she says. “People were so sick, it was just about making them comfortable. As time’s gone on, it’s gotten easier and easier… now, we need to keep people undetectable.”

Langlois credits the community it serves and the many dedicated employees over Metro’s 25-year history for their successes. Among them, the upcoming gala’s 2017 honorees, like PNC Bank vice-president and inclusion consultant Ashley Brundage.

Brundage will receive the Robert Pope Distinguished Leadership Award, named after one of Metro’s founding board members. “Ashley’s always been in everybody’s eye,” the CEO says. “With everything going on with the transgender community right now, this year is especially important to honor her courage and impact on the LGBT community as a whole,” says Kriseman.

The Infection Disease Associates of Tampa Bay, which Langlois called “instrumental for almost all of our 25 years,” will receive the Dr. John Barnett Service Award, and the Spirit of Service Excellence Award will also be presented to the Tampa Bay Area Cyclists (TBAC).

“They’re so committed to the community,” Langlois says. TBAC participates annually in the SMART Ride, the only HIV/AIDS bicycle ride of its size to donate 100 percent of funds raised to research.

“I’ll never forget my first year as a rider and going around asking for donations for raffle prizes,” Chris Lichfoldt, TBAC member, says. “I walked into a bakery and asked the young girl if I could speak to her manager. I explained that it was for the SMART Ride and Metro. She said, ‘I am very familiar with them, my grandmother has been going to Metro for years and we would have not had food on our table or medicine in the cabinet if not for them.’”

“Metro has done so much for the community in its 25 years,” board of directors member Nate Taylor says. “Metro really means support and advocacy… we do our best to ensure the community is first and that they have what they need to be informed and safe.”

The organization’s impending expansion into its 47,000-square-foot space and the inclusion of a Health Center are just two ways Metro has stayed true to its directive. “[It’s] really helped us become an all-encompassing health care provider,” the organization’s lead PrEP navigator Christian Klimas, who works alongside the Health Center, tells us.

“It has opened the doors for our successful LGBT-centered programs like PrEP and HRT,” he continues, referencing pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), daily medication used to reduce the risk of HIV infection, and Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) for transgender clients.

“Treatment and prevention of HIV is ever-changing, and Metro has proven to follow suit,” Klimas says. “There is always something new around every corner… I am still excited to see what’s what to come.”

And so is Langlois. Though she’s currently recovering from surgery, she tells Watermark with laughter that she’ll attend the gala even if she has to do so “in bed or in a wheelchair.”

“I want to see as many people come out and party as I can,” the Metro CEO says, teasing this may be Metro’s final gala before switching to another celebratory format next year. “It’s a community celebration… we’re here for the community.”

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