LGBT Life Center focuses on food and health during pandemic

Born during the HIV crisis, the LGBT Life Center in Norfolk found itself adapting this year to help lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people through another crisis.

“There are a few of us around who still remember all that, how to create emergency services for people quickly and recognizing needs in a crisis,” says CEO Stacie Walls. “We do that well.”

Originally focused on treating people with HIV, the nonprofit evolved into an LGBT community center that provides services such as housing, a pharmacy and senior support as well as HIV specialty care.

In the time of COVID-19, the organization has had to amp up its emergency services. Two COVID-19 grants enabled the center to feed clients in need and serve people needing mental health support, Walls says.

The first, a joint grant from the Hampton Roads Community Foundation and United Way of South Hampton Roads for $18,000, funded meals to help people facing food insecurity. The second from the Foundation supported mental health counseling for clients.

“United Way and Hampton Roads Community Foundation both made the grant application processes so easy,” Walls says. “I’m so thankful for that.”

Church volunteers who had been cooking and donating meals for the center to distribute no longer were able to do so during the pandemic. The organization used the grant funding to buy 2,170 frozen, prepared meals, serving 102 households and 161 people. The meals came from Blackdog Cafe, supporting a small business that, like many restaurants, saw its customers dwindle due to the pandemic.

The grant also helped purchase an additional freezer and pay mileage reimbursement for drivers delivering meals to people who were unable to pick them up.

“It was really, really nice to see our freezers really full,” says Client Services Manager Doris McNeill, who manages the medical case management program for HIV-positive clients.

As part of their job, case managers look for barriers to people receiving medical treatment, including lack of food. “If you don’t have enough food, that is your main priority, it’s not taking the medicines,” McNeill says.

Food insecurity is a constant struggle but is magnified now because pandemic-related job losses have created difficult financial situations, McNeill says. The food went out almost as quickly as it came in, she says.

In total, with help from funding from other sources, the center distributed 9,308 meals within six months.

The community foundation also awarded the LGBT Life Center a second grant for $3,500 to provide professional mental health care for uninsured clients. Since the pandemic began, the counseling sessions increased 116 percent per month as more people experienced greater stress, Walls says.

The organization switched from in-person to remote counseling, an option it intends to keep based on feedback from clients. The center also now offers expanded hours.

The center has been a lifesaver for Michael and Jeremy Martin, who needed help with food and resources during the pandemic.

“We didn’t know really anyone,” says Jeremy Martin, who moved to Hampton Roads from southwest Virginia. “We were having a lot of difficulties. We had lost our home, everything. I fell into a very deep depression.”

The LGBT Life Center brought them meals. “Without that, we would have nothing,” Jeremy says.

“It truly is a miracle,” adds Michael. “There is hope.”

Watch how the LGBT Life Center is helping Hampton Roads during the COVID-19 pandemic:

Learn more about our COVID-19 response, grants, and impact here.

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