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Community News: Southwest

CRENSHAW : The Gathering Place Offers Peace of Mind

October 02, 1994|ERIN J. AUBRY

For two years, Vincent Cook has thought of the Gathering Place as a home away from home, a welcome retreat from the inhospitable likes of government buildings and endless food lines.

Cook, who has been HIV-positive since 1986, says the center's new spruced-up digs on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard provide an even more inviting hangout than the drop-in center's previous location. "You can get some peace of mind here, get away," he said, helping himself to coffee and cookies in the center's dining room. "It's more like a house now than before."

Those such as Cook who have HIV or AIDS are rediscovering the Gathering Place, an aptly named center that provides its mostly black and Latino clientele an informal, homey atmosphere and a range of free services geared to provide a human touch: meals, massage therapy, dietitian and chiropractic services, individual counseling, support groups and a library for pleasure reading as well as keeping up-to-date on the latest AIDS research developments.

In August, the center moved half a block west of its second-floor quarters in an aging medical complex to a larger, 10-room space at 3966 King Blvd. Unlike the last location, it is free-standing and less clinical, said executive director Graciela Morales.

"This is all open space now," said Morales, leading a tour through the center. "It's soft, subtle--more like a home."

Morales said the move was as much facilitated by the need for a new look as by the January earthquake, which left its old space damaged and unsafe.

The interior walls of the new site, which formerly housed a church, are painted in soothing pink, purple and mauve. Furniture and doors are pale wood, and three overstuffed sofas are grouped around a communal television set. The dining room is country style, set with an oak table and chairs and outfitted with a coffee maker and a steady supply of snacks.

The nonprofit center provides client services Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The bulk of clients are referred by churches, AIDS agencies and other community organizations.

Though lauded by civic leaders as an exemplary community center in its two-year history, the center underwent a major administrative and personnel shake-up this year that at one point threatened to close it down. But Morales, who came on as executive director after serving seven years as a psychotherapist at the neighboring T.H.E. Clinic, said the Gathering Place got support from an unexpected place--its clients, many of whom are homeless or impoverished.

"They said, 'Hang in there, girlfriend, we need you,' " recalled Morales, laughing. "A lot of them helped us move, right in the middle of the terrible heat wave. They know they can't get this kind of service anywhere else."

An energetic woman with rapid-fire speech and a penchant for hugs, Morales is deadly serious about enlisting whatever help she can for her clients--a growing number of whom are women, children, parolees and the homeless. Of the nearly 125 clients the center serves each month, 20% to 25% are homeless.

The Gathering Place, founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, relies heavily on private funding for its $340,000 annual budget. It has seven staff members, and most of its services are donated by professionals.

The clients "deal with so much," said Morales, who has been trying to drum up support for the center at local black churches and on Spanish-language radio. "Their needs are very basic--food, a place to sit and talk. What they need most is simply human contact, like everyone else. When I see my clients, I don't see color."

Cook, 31, who is homeless but says he expects to get federal housing, says he appreciates the fact that he can go to the Gathering Place anytime--no questions asked.

"I like that I can come here, and people share their problems. I take what I need away from here," he said.

Information: (213) 295-2687.

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