City co-workers and other community members heap praise on Dennis, and Mayor Abbe Land gives her a lot of credit for the shaping of West Hollywood.
“Daphne has been instrumental in helping weave the fabric that makes West Hollywood the unique city that it is,” Land said. “She has continually innovated and advanced the Social Services Division – bringing local, regional, state and national awards and recognition. Her work and dedication to the people of West Hollywood will be felt for years to come.”
Before she worked for West Hollywood, Dennis taught junior high in Pacoima for 11 years, then worked at a non-profit called the Constitutional Rights Foundation for about four years. Weary of “begging for money in the nonprofit world,” Dennis heard that West Hollywood was hiring—and that the young city actually had cash in its coffers to fund programs. She joined the city’s staff in March of 1986.
Dennis, who’s been married 31 years to John Given, didn’t have prior experience working with the LGBT community. But she blended in. Elisabeth Sandberg, a member of the city’s Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board, called Dennis a “non-judgmental ally with a great heart who built bridges for the lesbian community.”
Dennis said she is proud of the city’s “total commitment to equality.” And she loves its “really fascinating mix of people.”
Dennis’ years working in West Hollywood have been full of ups and downs for gay people. “So many people were sick and dying so quickly,” she said, remembering the height of the AIDS crisis.
During that time, Dennis said, the city nurtured non-profits such as AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA), Being Alive and Aid for AIDS. Though Dennis demurred when asked to name her biggest personal accomplishments, she said that she and her colleagues are proud of West Hollywood’s support for AIDS organizations.
Kevin Kurth, the executive director of Being Alive, said he thinks “it’s very rare for a city to fund social services to the extent that West Hollywood does. It makes a huge difference. We’re able to provide services that I don’t think other cities could provide.”
Kurth said that the city remains a substantial funder of Being Alive, which provides counseling and wellness services for people living with HIV and AIDS.
“I’ve worked with [Daphne] for years,” Kurth said. “She is really dedicated to the city and to social services. She’s just been great to work with.”
Recently, there have been a lot of ups for LGBT people —especially with more states adopting marriage equality and same-sex marriage declared legal in California.
“It’s just amazing,” Dennis said, to be in West Hollywood during this time of progress. “What a gift.”
Besides HIV/AIDS services, some of WeHo’s biggest social programs are services for seniors, substance abuse recovery, services for the homeless, legal programs and mental health services.
Rather than directly provide social services, West Hollywood issues grants and oversees the agencies that receive the grants, which provide direct services to clients. The social services department oversees about $4 million in city-issued grants each year—a large amount for a city of only 34,000 people. Dennis thinks of it as putting your parking tickets and lattes to work.
Dennis has helped turn latte funds into a slew of programs, but one that stands out is the West Hollywood Head Start at Plummer Park. Perri Sloane Goodman, the city’s transportation program administrator, said Dennis was “almost singlehandedly responsible” for the establishment of the school, which offers low-cost child care for children from low-income families.
“Daphne played a very key role in opening the [school],” said Jesse Salazar, the school’s program director. “She’s been a champion of the child care center ever since … We have a lot of admiration for her.”
Dennis has the admiration of many others in the community, too. Two active West Hollywood residents —Marco Colantonio and Larry Block—submitted Dennis’ name when WEHOville.com called for Person of the Year nominations.
“Daphne Dennis epitomizes the core values of West Hollywood and all that is good in humanity,” Colantonio wrote. “Daphne has worked tirelessly and with consummate grace in her unwavering commitment to improve the human condition and quality of life for those in need. As she retires, Daphne will be remembered with respect and admiration by the multitudes she has helped and the many she has inspired.”
Not that retirement means Dennis will entirely disappear from WeHo. She wants to remain involved with the city—for example, with the Friends of the West Hollywood Library. But WeHo may not be her only love. Santa Monica, where Dennis has lived for 40 years, received a $1 million Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge grant, and Dennis would like to be of service.
Wherever she does from here, Dennis will take a little bit of WeHo’s spirit with her.
“The experience of meeting so many people from a variety of backgrounds enriched my life,” she said. “I had to opportunity to learn something new almost every day.”