After 22 years in the U.S. Air Force, Linda Thomas retired as a colonel. Her last post was as commander of Andrews Air Force Base, a facility in the Washington, D.C., area where Air Force One is based. After retirement, Thomas served on a committee with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) that worked to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Two years ago, Thomas and her partner moved to Southern Arizona and began volunteering, which led Thomas to join Wingspan's board of directors. About six weeks ago, Thomas was hired to lead the organization as director of programs. For more info on Wingspan, visit wingspan.org.
Why did you move to Tucson?
My partner, Holly, her mom lives in Green Valley, and we wanted to be nearby. We ended up in SaddleBrooke, and I jumped right in. I have a tendency to do that. We approached the Wingspan leadership about putting on the first annual golf classic for Wingspan. We made almost $14,000. Then I was asked to be on the board, and I was on the board a couple of months before Courtney Jones announced she was leaving. I thought I had some talents to offer the organization. The board did a full search, and in the end, I was selected.
After a difficult year, how is the organization's health now?
Obviously, last summer, the organization had to go through some changes, moving locations and cutting to a size with programs that grants and current funding can support. Now we're at nine full-time staff (members), one part-time, and two interns. All of our full-time staff is grant-funded, and I'm thrilled to report that morale is very high. Having come from a military background, maybe I shouldn't be, but I am amazed at how dedicated the staff is. They love their jobs, and it shows. They are serving almost as many people as we ever have, even at our height, when we were in the bigger building across the street. At the close of this fiscal year ending June 30, we're at a much better place than last fiscal year. That better financial health is a direct result of hands-on support by our board, but also support of the community.
What programs remain in place?
Primarily those which are grant-funded—the Eon Youth Lounge, our violence-prevention program and support for transgendered people. Watching the changes take place last summer, I remember thinking there was a silver lining to them. When Wingspan had an executive director and a big building, I think a lot of people thought, "I don't have to worry about them." When things changed, people took ownership. I think that the community reaction has been fantastic. I think staff felt encouraged by that.
There's also a stronger volunteer component at Wingspan.
Yes, especially with the Senior Pride program. This year, they won the Lavina Tomer Truth to Power Award. It used to be a Wingspan program run by staff, but during our changes, we had to cut that staff. The Senior Pride folks stepped up to continue running the programs that we'd run before, with very little support required from us. I try to go to their meeting once a month to stay in the loop, and we provide support to have their newsletter copied here and mailed out. Rainbow Families is also a program that is still run through volunteers.
What do you need right now?
Volunteers and donations. We need volunteers right now for the anti-violence program crisis hotline. There is a two-day training, and at the end, (trainees) often don't always come back. I think it's because it is a serious task, but we really need them. I'm also looking for volunteers to help with specific projects. We can also always use office supplies. The easiest one I can think of is copier paper. We also really want to update our youth lounge. We could use some new furniture. And donations—we want people to know we appreciate their support this past year, but we also continue to need their support, too.
Since you've taken this job, what misconceptions have you had to address?
Over and over again, "Is Wingspan still around? Well, you didn't do the dinner last year, so you must be gone." It is kind of frustrating. We are here, alive and well. I see us as the hub of the LGBT community in Tucson and Southern Arizona, and the high numbers of people we are serving reflect that. It's always good to hear what people are thinking, but it is a frustrating question for me, because I see how hard our staff, volunteers, board and community partners are working to sustain our important programs.