DeeJay Johannessen has turned HELP Center into major AIDS and LGBTQ service organization

DAVID TAFFET | Senior Staff Writer

Several hundred people were expected to attend the first Arlington Pride, which was held on the campus of the HELP Center for LGBTQ Health and Wellness. When more than 1,000 showed up, organizer — and HELP CEO — DeeJay Johannessen said they knew they’d have to find a bigger venue for the event the next year.

The second year, Arlington Pride moved to the Levitt Pavilion, and attendance multiplied to more than 5,000. Building on that success, planners added more entertainment and booths for 2024, and attendance climbed to more than 10,000, with people registered from 156 cities in 23 states and three countries for this year’s third annual event.

The Health Education Learning Project, shortened to HELP Center, was started in 1994 by two nuns and the mom of someone living with AIDS. The three women made a name for themselves with the Keep It Up Cowtown project — wrapping safer sex stories in a package with condoms that they distributed.

While it was originally a city project to distribute condoms to help control the spread of the HIV virus, they were required to use city printing. Founder Memie Hardie was placed under house arrest for what she was printing, Johannessen said. The mayor told her, “We don’t work with those kind of people.”

But the condom distribution project was wildly successful, so to take the politics out of AIDS services, HELP Center became a private nonprofit.
Johannessen moved to Arlington in 1998 to become director.

DeeJay Johannessen at Arlington Pride

He was living in Alaska where he had taught school and volunteered on the board of the Alaskan AIDS Assistance Association. He was involved in getting grants for housing and joined the staff as the organization’s housing director. But he had just started a relationship with someone from Atlanta.

“He came up to Alaska,” Johannessen said, “but he couldn’t live there.” So they started looking for someplace to move and ended up choosing Dallas.

At HELP Center, Johannessen started out doing prevention work. But, “over the years, the organization grew and grew,” he said.

In 2016, HELP started offering PrEP. At the time, the only place to get the preventive treatment in Tarrant County was the county health department. What people told Johannessen repeatedly was they couldn’t get off work four times a year to go to Dallas or Fort Worth for the exam necessary to qualify for PrEP.

So HELP hired two practitioners and, by 2017, was seeing patients.

After the murder of George Floyd, Arlington created a Unity Council to discuss “what do we need to do better as a city,” Johannessen said. More than 50 suggestions on racial equity were presented to the city. Johannessen and the LGBTQ community presented what became Arlington’s non-discrimination ordinance, that was adopted within just a few months.

“Not one council member spoke out against it,” Johannessen said. “Not one member of the community spoke out against it.”

What the city did question was whether it would be enough to raise Arlington’s score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index to 100, which both Dallas and Fort Worth had already achieved. The difference was the two large cities were starting with scores close to 100. Arlington started with a poor score of 20.

But Arlington did achieve — and has since maintained — its 100.

“The city understood it was the right thing to do,” Johannessen said, and it was a good thing to do economically.

Today, HELP offers HIV care, gender-affirming care and counseling. All services are provided free-of-charge. They also operate as a community center with rooms that can be used without charge.
Johannessen said neighborhood associations, police and others have all taken advantage of the free space HELP offers. He said his organization is happy to do it because “We want to be good neighbors.”

He described how HELP Center has grown: “We find gaps and fill them or find someone to fill them,” he said.

That’s how Arlington Pride came into being, and within three years has become the largest Pride celebration in North Texas outside of Dallas.

“The founders of HELP set a mission and ethic for the organization,” Johannessen said. “Do great work and be client focused.” That’s what the organization does and has become an important part of Arlington’s LGBTQ community and the city at large.