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Special Report: Center on Halsted revamps website as part of five year anniversary

Center on Halsted announces a number of community projects as part of 5th anniversary

Chicago, IL — This June marks five years since the Center on Halsted opened its doors in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood and the organization's goal of "building and strengthening the LGBT community" is more alive today than ever before. The Center recently relaunched their website and with it a new, branded look to help improve their online presence.

The old website was full of information, but lacked the organization and functionality required to help users easily access it. The site was challenging at times to navigate, there weren't many pictures of real people on it and according to Brian Richardson, who joined the Center on Halsted last July as the Director of Public Affairs, it wasn't clear from the homepage that the organization was a community center dedicated to the LGBT community.

"We wanted to tell our story better," Richardson told ChicagoPride.com. "That meant bringing people and their stories and the cool events that are happening everyday at the Center to the front. It meat streamlining information about the various programs and social services that we offer and making it more interactive and more fun."

The new website was designed to be cleaner and more straightforward, easy enough to use that people could find the events and programs of interest to them in one or no clicks. Practically, this meant putting the organization's tagline front and center, cleaning up the navigation bar and adding a box to the homepage advertising the daily events held at the Center. Big events are up front in a rotating picture box and just below this are several tiles advertising certain special events of specific programs. In addition to being easier to navigate the site is also easier on the eyes. It now incorporates pictures wherever possible, giving the website a real human face.

The programs pages may be the most important on the site and were streamlined and made over for the relaunch. Clicking on any of the eight programs like"Victim Advocacy", "Youth" or "Mental Health" takes users to a brief overview of the program supplemented by pictures and information about services the Center offers as well as current contact information.

"We want the website to be a portal for people to come to the Center, or to reach out to Center staff," Richardson said. "The Center is the destination, but it's also about getting there."

Providing visitors to the site with ways to take action was high priority. The contact page features a place to book tours for groups as small as one or large as 100 and chances to get involved by donating, joining the Center's mailing list and volunteering. Outreach was also improved by the relaunch of the Center's Facebook page, which has gone from an audience of 1200 likes to over 2600 in the last six months. Cool new events and programs at the Center as well as local and national LGBT news is posted to the Facebook page at least once a day, but oftentimes more.

"Part of building and strengthening the community is helping to inform the community as well," Richardson said.

The Center also launched a new blog, which will be updated about once a week. The blog is an opportunity for different members on the staff to speak directly about their programs or highlight their events in a way that is more personal than a program description. It will also feature occasional posts by community members. On her recent trip to Chicago Judy Shepherd, the mother of Wyoming hate crime victim Matthew Shepherd turned activist, contributed a piece about what it's like to be a woman and also an LGBT advocate.

Increasing the number of women visitors was one of the Center's goals this year, so they launched and grew a number of programs specific to women. The Center introduced Women's Speed Dating for female-identified LGBT individuals and also Women's Game Night, each held on a bimonthly basis.

"It's been huge -- sometimes on women's game night we have 100 women coming to the Center to make new friends, hang out and play board games," said Richardson. "So those sorts of programs are continuing to grow and flourish."

The last five years have seen a lot of change in the Center on Halsted. The number and types of programs they offer have expanded dramatically as have their relationships with other LGBT organizations in Chicago. The Center gives administrative and operational support to smaller organizations, offering them use of the office spaces and performing venues located in the building at Halsted and Waveland.

"It's our five year anniversary as a community center and as Center on Halsted, but our history goes back quite a bit longer," Richardson told ChicagoPride.com. "We've grown along with the movement and with the LGBT community in Chicago. As the community grows and makes more roots, so has the Center."

The Center on Halsted's long history with Chicago's LGBT community is depicted in photos that line its second floor hallway. In 1973 the organization was founded as Gay Horizons, a volunteer-run meeting place for LGBT folks. Gay Horizons started a help and information hotline and began organizing to provide social and medical services for the growing LGBT community. As it continued to expand over the years, Gay Horizons became a social service organization and in the 80s changed its name to Horizons to reflect its growing inclusion of other identities. The 90s saw Horizons inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame and expanded to include a professional staff of 24 and a volunteer core of 300 by the year 2000. 

The growing desire in Chicago for a permanent place and landmark to the LGBT community lead to the Center on Halsted project. In 2003 Horizons officially changed its name, hired a board of directors and reorganized, breaking ground two years later and finally opening the Center's doors during Pride Month 2007.

"Over the last five years, we've grown to become the Midwest's most comprehensive LGBT community center," Richardson said. "When we opened our doors we had a lot of hopes and plans and dreams and in the past five years we've been able to realize those by growing the programs we already had in place and starting new ones."

The Center has a few big projects currently in the works. Thanks to a recent grant for $1.6 million from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, they're launching Chicago's first Mpowerment program, a very successful model for HIV prevention specifically designed to address the needs of young gay and bisexual men and other men who have sex with men (MSM). They're also working with Heartland Alliance to build the Midwest's very first affordable housing facility for LGBT seniors, which will be located near the Center's Lakeview location. While still in the financing process, they hope to break ground around the New Year, Richardson told ChicagoPride.com.

On May 12 the Center on Halsted is holding their annual fundraiser, the Human First Gala, featuring Bravo's Andy Cohen as host and emcee and musical guest k.d. lang & The Siss Boom Bang. Human First celebrates the belief that regardless of your sexual orientation, gender identity, race, ethnicity or religion we are all people first. The Center is honoring several community leaders and organizations that have gone above and beyond the call of duty to contribute to the community and make a real difference in Chicago's LGBT movement.

"This year is about looking back over the last five years and looking forward to what we're going to do in the next five," Richardson said. "It's a chance to reflect and celebrate, but also a chance to come together and look forward to what happens next."

Tickets for the Human First Gala are now on sale and start at $125. For more information or to purchase your tickets, please visit http://www.centeronhalsted.org/1stv.

Related: CalendarQ listing for Human First Gala, May 12

On the web: www.CenteronHalsted.org