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26Health: A Passion for Compassion

26Health Provides Path to Wellness for Underserved LGBTQ+ Community

When Dr. David Baker-Hargrove first served as a Red Cross volunteer responding to the 9/11 tragedy at“Ground Zero,” he felt like what he calls “The Accidental Disaster-Response Person.” The clinical psychologist felt unprepared for the things he encountered working the nightshift counseling first responders and survivors of that fateful day in 2001.

But it gave Baker-Hargrove the training and experience to know exactly what to do 15 years later, when the Pulse nightclub shootings tore a hole in the heart of Orlando’s LGBTQ+ community. With 49 people dead, 53 wounded and a city stunned by the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history at the time, the doctor helped mobilize the local mental health response – work that clarified his life’s mission.

Today, the doctor and his husband, Robert Baker-Hargrove, celebrate the sixth year of their nonprofit company 26Health, which supports wellness of the mind, body and spirit of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning people and their allies — those who support the LGBTQ+ community even if they are not part of it. As a nonprofit, the company helps people regardless of insurance status or ability to pay.

“Our health care system in America tends to come from a white male perspective, and that can feel alienating to some people,” says the doctor, who serves as the company’s president and co-CEO. “We connect people who are disenfranchised from the system and get them back to wellness.”

The company offers everything from mental and physical health appointments to an on-site pharmacy to medical spa services. 26Health also operates an adoption agency to connect parents and children. The Baker-Hargroves oversee a team that includes almost 50 people, who know them as “Dr. David and Robert.”

At a time when mental health has become a worldwide priority because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company that started through the doctor’s former private psychology practice is seeing explosive growth. It recently purchased the four-story building it was leasing on North Magnolia Avenue in downtown Orlando and is expanding its clinic and office space.

In July 2021, 26Health established a $3.5 million endowment fund through the Central Florida Foundation to ensure a permanent and predictable source of revenue to continue its mission.

“Orlando has an extremely large LGBTQ+ and ally community,” says Robert, a former Walt Disney World leader who serves as the co-CEO and chief operating officer of 26Health. 

“When we started, we recognized there was a gap in the way this population received health care. We wanted to fill that need. New providers have come up since then, but the important thing is the service. It’s about the patients and how we serve them.”

The widespread isolation brought on by the pandemic has forced the Baker-Hargroves to reflect on that grim day after the Pulse massacre. Officials with the City of Orlando and Orange County were contacting blood relatives of the victims, but Dr. David knew something was missing. “They didn’t know the LGBTQ community and how so many people within it have ‘families of choice.’ I knew that our entire community was broken, and no one was reaching out and connecting with them.”

That summer, 26Health had been open only nine months, but the couple spent time organizing volunteers to reach out into Central Florida through places where LGBTQ+ people gathered to avoid being alone. “People were starting to break down in bars,” Robert says, “so we sent out counselors who would sit in the bars and be there for support.” 

Many Hats 

One of Dr. David’s specialties in his private practice and at 26Health has been helping people in the LGBTQ+ community cope with feelings of not belonging and the challenges of wanting to be accepted for who they are. Terminology for the ways people define themselves is continuously evolving, and the company is an advocate for cultural sensitivity.

Dr. David identifies as nonbinary, using the gender-neutral pronouns ve, ver and vers. Robert identifies as cisgender, meaning his personal identity corresponds with his birth gender, and uses he, him and his. 

Like cultural awareness, the company has come a long way over the years. Dr. David recalls playing multiple roles before hiring and training the first employees. “Robert was still at Disney and I wore all the hats. I was still a health care provider. I was the CEO, the CFO, the CMO, all of the C’s, plus some of the non-C’s. I did almost everything, but I had to start giving away some responsibilities as we grew.”

The road has not been easy, and Dr. David sees that as a cautionary tale for other entrepreneurs. When asked what it was like in those early days, ve answers in one word: “Terrifying.” 

“Unless you’ve been through it before, it’s hard to really understand what that feels like,” Dr. David says. “So much of that is not addressed in articles or books about being an entrepreneur and building a business. Either successful entrepreneurs are so far removed from it that they forget — like with childbirth, where you don’t remember how much it hurt — or they just kind of gloss over it. I don’t feel like we talk enough about how scary and painful it is.”

“There’s all this uncharted territory. I’d never done any of this before. At the same time, I realized that if you know where to look, you can find the solution to any problem.”

A New Brand

The Baker-Hargroves originally founded the company as Two Spirit Health Services. In October 2019, it underwent a name and branding change. The current name comes from the 26 letters of the alphabet, emerging from the way Dr. David and Robert quipped about caring for LGBTQ+ “and all the different letters.” Today, the tagline is “Care for every letter.”

“As we grew in scope and in size, we realized the original name didn’t fit who we were becoming and didn’t accurately describe the range and breadth of who we were as an organization,” Dr. David says. “Rebranding seemed like a big scary ordeal. We’re a little organization with big intentions, and we like to put our brand on everything. We wanted to be an iconic brand that people would recognize over the next five, 10, 20 years and say, ‘That’s 26Health.’ Something like the Human Rights Campaign’s equality sign, or the Apple, or the Nike swish, or the Under Amour logo.”

The Baker-Hargroves worked with local marketing agency Findsome and Winmore to define and design the 26Health brand. Robert describes one of the results: “In the logo, if you turn the 26 one way, you see an equality sign. If you turn it the other way, you see an infinity sign.”

This year, 26Health has moved forward aggressively with its plans for growth. An online advertising campaign and a collection of 18 local billboards tout an initiative that helps prevent HIV through medication. Physicians in the company’s expanding telehealth program now work with patients across 39 states.

The company is introducing more ways to provide services for LGBTQ+ community members who experience barriers to health care. These include expanding programs that offer medical testing and helping people navigate health insurance policies. The company is working to get a mammography machine for female-identified patients. It’s offering seminars and help with paperwork for transgender people to change their names and identifying information. It’s holding seminars for LGBTQ+ job seekers and building a free clothing bank for people transitioning through gender change. 

The company also plans to add staff — being sure to give careful consideration to diversity and inclusion, something the company is proud to support through its actions every day. And because 26Health helps people who speak so many different languages, the company hires employees who have the skills to communicate with them, including sign language for the deaf.

“From the beginning, we didn’t think of ourselves as a small local nonprofit organization,” Robert says. “We thought of ourselves as a large corporate Fortune 100 company. We may not have been there, but everything that a Fortune 100 company did, we decided we were going to do — we just scaled it appropriately to the size of our company.”

Entrepreneurial Mindset 

Dr. David recalls another pivotal point that led to the growth of the private practice and the birth of 26Health. In 2010, ve attended a morning meet-and-greet for psychologists at the University of Central Florida (UCF) counseling center. The practice’s growth was stagnant, and the doctor was struggling with that.

“I didn’t really want to go, and I didn’t know why I was going, but I went anyway. I was standing in the corner with my orange juice and my donut, and I must have looked like 12 miles of sad road. A woman introduced herself to me and asked, ‘How is your business going?’ As we chatted, she recommended a book about how to become a better Businessperson.

“I thought to myself, ‘I’ve been to school, I’ve got a Ph.D. I’ve been to therapy. I don’t need a book’. But for some reason, I emailed her anyway and she sent me the information on this book called Twelve Months to Your Ideal Private Practice by social worker Lynn Grodzki. I ordered it online. And 26Health exists today because of that.”

The book showed the doctor how to develop an entrepreneurial mindset. Meanwhile, Robert helped look for ways to make the practice profitable, including collecting insurance reimbursements Dr. David never had time to track down. 

“One of the things that I don’t ever want to forget, because I don’t want the message to get lost to other visionaries, is how lonely it feels,” Dr. David says. “I don’t think our situation was unique to our community.

“The Anthony Robbins and Brene Browns of the world tell you, ‘You’ve got to believe in your vision. Your business isn’t going to skyrocket through the roof until you believe in your vision.’ But what are you going to do when you’re wrestling with feeling like you’re the only one? This is something every single entrepreneur has the potential to go through. There’s no way Steve Jobs didn’t feel like this.”

Since then, Dr. David has stayed open to learning and growing — something ve says is critical for leaders of any size organization. 

“With every stage of growth in your company, you have to learn how to be a different leader,” Dr. David says. “The leader I was when we were a company of 10 employees is completely different from the leader I have to be now that we’re at nearly 50. And let me tell you, the growing pains were awful. The problem is, you don’t know what you don’t know.

“Right now, I feel really comfortable because I think I’ve got it. I’m going to have to let go of that at some point because it’s not going to work anymore – we’re going to be at a different size and I’m going to have to redo it again.”

As 26Health carries out its mission, it’s helping breathe hope into a community that continues to cope with multiple levels of stress – both the Greater Orlando community and the LGBTQ+ community within it.

“We need to mirror the community we’re serving,” Robert says. “It was crucial during the response to Pulse, it’s crucial today and it’s crucial for the future.” 

Dr. David expands on that thought: “It’s important for us to reflect the consciousness we’d like to see in the community, and that’s what we try to espouse every day. We want to continue to embody that through the work we do, the impact we make and the culture we build.”

 


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About the author

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Diane Sears

A career journalist, author and advocate for business growth, Diane Sears is the CEO, editor and publisher of i4 Business. She is also the founder and president of DiVerse Media LLC, which has handled content marketing projects including nonfiction books, white papers, executive speeches and scripts since 2000. She is co-founder of the nonprofit Go for the Greens Foundation, which helps connect women-owned and minority-owned business owners with growth opportunities internationally.

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