By Marcia Froelke Coburn
In 1987, Modesto "Tico" Valle saw the AIDS Memorial Quilt in Washington, D.C., and it changed his life. With degrees from Notre Dame's seminary school and DePaul University, Valle—who grew up in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood—had been working as a Chicago school administrator. "But the quilt showed me all these human lives, and the hatred and bigotry they had faced," says Valle. "I felt this need to provide a voice for people who have been silenced."
Two decades after he first saw the Memorial Quilt, Valle has emerged as one of the city's most powerful voices crying out against hatred and bigotry. It helps that he has such a magnificent platform from which to speak: the new Center on Halsted, where Valle, 43, serves as executive director. Opened in June 2007, the $20-million, 185,000-square-foot community center is dedicated to serving the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities. Five years in the making, the center houses a multipurpose theatre, an art gallery, a computer lab, a full-size gym, and a counseling center. It is also home to the Illinois STD/ HIV/AIDS Hotline, as well as a dozen small community groups that pay a small rent for offices and use of the versatile conference rooms. The place provides cultural, educational, and social programming for youth, adults, and seniors, all drawn by the center's vision of "celebrating, affirming, and discussing possibilities."
Valle's journey toward the Center on Halsted began in 1989, when he founded the Chicago NAMES Project, which brought the AIDS quilt to Navy Pier for its first display in the Midwest. At the same time, he volunteered at a number of local nonprofits that provided social services for people with HIV/AIDS and their families: Chicago House, Test Positive Aware Network, and Open Hand Chicago. "I became dedicated to finding ways to open eyes and soften hearts," he says.
The Center on Halsted—an outgrowth of the decades-old Horizon Community Services, where Valle worked for two years—may provide him his greatest opportunity yet to accomplish that goal. Situated three blocks from Wrigley Field (at 3656 North Halsted Street) and with a new Whole Foods grocery store serving as anchor tenant, the center is designed to bring together a diverse group of people, regardless of sexual orientation. "Any day here I see moms and dads and baby strollers inside; seniors and teenagers and gay couples and lesbian couples," says Valle. "This is how you break down barriers. This is how you end hatred."