Tucked between a hair salon and a gift shop on bustling Las Olas Boulevard is a mysterious gated door with simple instructions: "Enter thru alley."
Once you loop around the block and walks past the trash canisters that fill this back street, a rainbow flag appears, sailing like a bright beacon of hope.
It leads to Lambda South, the nonprofit home of dozens of 12-step programs for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people in South Florida. As the center approaches its 30th anniversary this summer, it is busier than ever.
"This is one of those hidden, quiet diamonds in the rough that is not well-known,'' said Joe Donnelly, 64, one of the original founders of the center, which houses three classroom-like meeting rooms that are used from 8 a.m. and well into the evening. "When I see different meetings go on at different times, it's phenomenal.
"Tens of thousands of people have used it over the years. There was a need for this."
A small sign outside the one-story charcoal building's alley entrance lists the various forms of addictions and issues that people come here daily for: alcohol, crystal methadone and co-dependency.
Two years ago, a sex and love addiction meeting was added. In March, the center brought in Ala-Anon/Alateen, which are meetings for loved ones and children of alcoholics.
In all, 1,000 people flow through Lambda South doors for about 60 meetings a week to share their anxieties and struggles. While 80 percent of members are local residents, the rest are snowbirds and tourists looking for help in living sober and healthy lifestyles.
While the center's prime focus is giving gays a place to openly discuss their issues, straight people — particularly women — also find healing here.
"We have a lot of women who come into our clubhouse who don't want to be hit on at straight meetings,'' said Lambda South president Robert Accetura, a hairstylist who has been sober from alcohol and drugs for seven years. "We don't keep anyone from coming here. We are all here trying to do the same thing, which is to get sober. It's a loving fellowship where you accept everybody."
In 1983, Donnelly and a handful of gay Fort Lauderdale residents launched the center after hearing demand for a regular meeting place where people could openly discuss their issues with alcohol and sexuality
At first, the group held a community gathering inviting local residents to listen to their proposal and to raise funds to set up the nonprofit meeting house. About 170 people attended, and the organizers collected $35,000.
They found a space inside a former antique storage place at 1231-A Las Olas Blvd., and called it Lambda South because "lambda" became a symbol associated with the early days of the gay movement. The word served as a way to identify the facility as gay-friendly for gays and lesbians looking for 12-step meetings in pamphlets and guide books.
When it first opened, the building housed meetings focused primarily on alcohol abuse.
"We opened up with five groups and we were meeting eight or nine times a week,'' Donnelly recalled. "It just grew from there."
And through the years, the meetings reflected the latest trends in drug abuse in South Florida.
"In the 1980s, it was cocaine. In the '90s, it started moving into heroine and crystal meth, and that has gone into this decade as well … It has evolved into so many things,'' said Donnelly, a property manager in Wilton Manors who has been sober from alcohol for 37 years. "I have longterm sobriety. The reason I have it is because I still go."
There are other community-based centers offering some services for gays seeking recovery, including Lambda North in Lake Worth, which isn't affiliated with Lambda South and mostly focuses on alcohol abuse. In Wilton Manors, there's The Pride Center at Equality Park, which also has some meetings. But Lambda South appears to be the largest of its kind in South Florida.
Lambda South has a group of five executive board members, plus a crew of volunteers that oversees maintenance of the building, fundraisers and coordination of the various 12-step groups, which essentially pay rent to the center. At the end of their meetings, the groups pass around a basket for donations.
Though not mandatory, people can become paying members, with rates beginning at $10 a month. Paying members have a coffee mug with their first name and initial of their last name in the kitchen's "Wall of Cups," which makes for a homey feeling. A bulletin board highlights the upcoming members' sober anniversary, which is celebrated the last Saturday of the month.
Upon approaching the center, that warm welcome is clear. One recent afternoon, a gaggle of men and women chatted and laughed, their voices filling the air by the center's alley entrance as they wrapped up an alcoholics anonymous meeting. They smoked cigarettes in the Zen-like outdoor patio flanked by bamboo trees and benches.
Inside, hallmarks of recovery line the walls. Ribboning the ceiling of the rotunda are lines from the 12-step serenity prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change." And framed in each room is a responsibility pledge: "I am responsible when anyone reaches out anywhere for help."
For the past five years, part-time Fort Lauderdale/New York City resident Matthew Lombardo has found help here to battle his crystal meth addiction.
"A lot of my friends who also had crystal meth addiction were going down to South Florida. I would ask them, 'What is down there?'"
Lombardo learned through word of mouth about Lambda South, which had been seeing more crystal meth addicts in recent years.
"I went down for six months and I started to stay sober. My career took off again," said the former TV soap opera writer who penned the play, "High," starring Kathleen Turner last year at the Parker Playhouse.
More recently, his production of "Looped," which starred Stefanie Powers at the Parker Playhouse, helped raise funds for Lambda South.
Through the center, Lombardo has found a kinship with fellow gay men who, like him, balance the fragile seesaw of recovery.
"We are all trying to deal with our addiction and lead a clean and sober life," he said. "Whenever I am not working [in New York], I go down to South Florida and wrap myself up in the blanket of Lambda South."
For more information, go to Lambdasouth.com.
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