By Elliot Owen
Bay Area Reporter
Lavender Seniors of the East Bay, a local LGBT senior services and advocacy organization, has come under the new fiscal sponsorship of Bay Area Community Services, a mainstream vulnerable adult services agency, to maintain and expand its outreach to the LGBT community.
Talks of merging began two years ago with meetings between Dan Ashbrook, executive director of Lavender Seniors, and Jaime Almanza, executive director of BACS, after they realized that the two organizations share similar visions.
“We came together to leverage our resources for the advancement of our missions,” Ashbrook said, “and realized all the wonderful possibilities should Lavender Seniors become a LGBT outreach advocacy arm of BACS.”
Founded nearly 60 years ago, BACS provides adult day care, meals on wheels, case management, transportation, and mental health services to marginalized adult communities. Prior to the incorporation of Lavender Seniors, BACS lacked any LGBT-centered programs.
“We did not have a formalized approach for providing LGBT-specific service strategies for our populations who experience many unique challenges as they age,” Almanza said. “Through this merger, all BACS staff and clients throughout our many programs now have direct access and support to the expertise of Lavender Seniors.”
Since 1994, Lavender Seniors has been providing LGBT seniors with a variety of services, namely free monthly social lunches, educational seminars, and a friendly visitors program. Its advocacy branch educates health service providers, government officials and legislators about LGBT older adult issues through cultural competency trainings and community events. Today, Lavender Seniors serves 100 unduplicated clients per month and about 200 more over the course of the year.
Government grants, private funding, and donations kept Lavender Seniors afloat since its inception, but when government funding for the agency was slashed by 30 percent in 2008 and continued to decrease each year thereafter, Ashbrook felt they needed to react.
“Our funding couldn’t keep pace with our growing client list,” he said. “We knew we needed a better business plan and didn’t want to wait until total financial crisis before putting a plan into action.”
Prior to merging with BACS in February, Lavender Seniors operated under an annual budget of $150,000 and has now been able to cut costs by 50 percent after nestling under the wing of BACS, which has an $8 million budget. The BACS offices are in downtown Oakland.
Marvin Burrows, a Lavender Seniors advisory board member and one of the agency’s founders, agrees that becoming a project of BACS was the right response to a continuous decline in funding.
“This will be a lifesaver for us,” Burrows said. “It gives the financial responsibility to someone else and we’ll have a lot of other help with our programs, faster referrals, and so on. It’s a way to continue the work that we do into the future.”
Not only has the financial future of Lavender Seniors been secured, the organization’s abilities have been expanded, too.
“BACS has an immense amount of resources,” Ashbrook said. “They have geriatric case managers, licensed clinical social workers, interns, a volunteer management system, and adult day care programs. We’re now able to enroll our most at-risk seniors into these programs and support systems much quicker.”
Leslie Fetherkile, an 80-year-old blind self-identified lesbian who has been accessing Lavender Seniors services for three years, said that she has experienced faster responses from the organization since it merged with BACS.
“All I have to do is call Dan and tell him what I’m having a problem with and he seemed to manage it but it took some time,” Fetherkile said. “Now with BACS, it’s a different story. They can do things in a couple days instead of a couple weeks. They had new steps put in and my electric hook-ups are going to be changed. I have people calling me and coming over here all the time.”
Although there was initial concern about the loss of the Lavender Seniors brand identity within the larger BACS structure during discussions about the merger, Ashbrook is confident that that won’t happen.
“We’re maintaining separate organizational identities,” he said. “We’re really not putting both brands side-by-side in a lot of our marketing and programming material. We are converging a lot of our advocacy, though, because there are mutual needs for all seniors.”
Ashbrook, who started working with Lavender Seniors six years ago as a volunteer, is now also the director of development and older adult services at BACS and has seen his annual salary increase from $55,000 to $70,000.
“I love working with the LGBT senior community,” he said. “It’s become a lifelong commitment. And I love that I’m still able to do that without the risk of losing my job.”
But one of the biggest benefits of the merger, he says, is the institutionalization of LGBT programming within a large government-funded agency.
“It’s a phenomenal model in which mainstream senior service agencies can replicate to better address the needs of LGBT older adults,” he said.