Juan Franco: Long-time activist, full-time advocate

Several years ago, a friend of mine contacted me on Christmas Eve and asked me if there was any way I could pick up some toys before the stores closed. He was working with an organization that was helping a number of kids experiencing hardships — many in situations preventing them from receiving presents for Christmas that year. I used my super shopping skills to get a big bagful of things that were pretty cool without breaking my bank and asked where I should take them. He gave me the address, and I went over to the facility, expecting to hand the goods over to an administrator or leave them in the lobby. But as I walked in the door, a young boy looked up at me. He yelled one word at the top of his lungs, “Toys!” The next thing I knew, a group of about 12 kids swarmed me, smiles aglow, and the cheer “Toys! Toys!” echoed through the lobby. I hadn’t meant to disrupt things, but a woman who worked there told me to hand them out, that the kids could use enjoyment that day. I opened the bag and started handing out gifts as the kids clapped and gathered around. It almost brought me to tears, and I knew just a little of how Santa must feel. It was magical. I recaptured a little of that magic a few years later when I went to my first DVLF TOY Drive. There were enough toys to stretch across the lobby, and I couldn’t help but smile. I’m excited to participate again this year as DVLF takes the event to a new location, the African American Museum in Philadelphia. 

Juan Franco is the (relatively) new executive director of DVLF. A long-time activist, Franco comes to the position having worked at Temple University’s School of Social Work on HIV prevention and communications strategies in underserved Latinx and other diverse communities, as well as a navigation specialist at the Mazzoni Center. As co-chair of the Latinx Institute’s host committee for the National LGBTQ Task Force’s “Creating Change” conference, he championed an ambassadors program that raised funds to provide scholarships for attendees from marginalized communities. Not one to rest, he also used his many skills to work as a congestive-heart-failure outreach worker as well as a Spanish interpreter for patients at Temple University Hospital. And when not doing all that, he uses his spare time to take photos of special moments throughout the city for his Instagram account @Thatlittlemomentphoto. I found a brief hole in his schedule to talk with him and find out even more about the fabulous Mr. Franco. 

So let’s start by telling me where you’re from? Philly guy or transplant?

I am a transplant that moved here in January of 2011.

Can you tell me about your household growing up? 

I grew up in a household with my parents, Carmen and Javier, and two older brothers, Marcos and Carlos. We are all just over a year apart in age and are very close. My family and I are from Colombia and emigrated to the U.S. when I was three. My brothers and I were born in the beautiful city of Barranquilla on the Caribbean coast of the country. During my childhood and adolescence, my family moved around the country for my father’s work. We lived in Chicago, Fresno, Tampa and then finally in Hartford, Connecticut. 

What did he or does he do?

He is an Episcopalian pastor, and my mother is a social worker. 

I see where you get your philanthropic genes.

Yes. We moved around a bit while I was growing up, but I would describe my household as a pretty traditional Colombian household where my brothers and I spoke Spanish to my parents; actually, we still do. That fostered very close and meaningful bonds to both of my brothers. We grew up spending our summer and winter breaks with our family in Colombia. A fun fact about life at the Franco Murillo household is that my brothers and I all have ADHD and were raised by patient parents who spent countless hours supporting our learning process to make sure we were successful in school, while also somehow managing our energetic ways, all while keeping their cool — especially my mom.

That must have been a challenge with three boys. What were you like as a kid?

I was a very energetic kid that enjoyed playing outside with my brothers and friends more than anything. [Laughing] I was the type of kid who was very bouncy and smiled all the time. I was very close to my brothers, so naturally, unless I was in school, you would find me with them. You could say we are three peas in a pod! I was also really good at math from an early age and have memories of practicing and division using flashcards with my dad and brothers when I was in kindergarten and first grade. 

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a pilot, the kind that flew commercial planes and fighter jets. For many years, I would only ask for planes for my birthday and Christmas presents because of my wanting to become a pilot. Sadly, in my early teen years, I realized that this would likely not be my career path. Unfortunately, because of my poor eyesight, I need to wear glasses or contacts, so I wasn’t eligible to become a pilot. But luckily, over the years, I came to realize that “growing up” and having a career in a field that helped and served people and community would be what would bring me the most happiness and lead to living a fulfilling life. 

That’s great that you were able to find something that was an even higher calling, so to speak. 

I know, it’s been amazing. 

Did you ever play any sports? If so, what were your best and worst sports moments?

Absolutely. I played many sports. My favorite ones to play growing up were soccer, football and track, but I only ran short distance races in track. My worst moments were long-distance races because I would get bored and forget that I was being timed! And basketball was tough too, because I was typically the shortest person on the court so despite my desire to play, my height really limited what I could do on the court! Now as an adult, I still play soccer with the Philly Falcons, the local LGBTQ+ soccer club that has been around as long as I’ve been alive.

What does DVLF do and stand for?

DVLF stands for the Delaware Valley Legacy Fund. It has been the Philadelphia region’s leading funder for the emerging needs of the LGBTQ community since 1993 and has given over $1 million in grants and scholarships. Guided by its mission to “serving the greater Philadelphia regions LGBTQ+ community through philanthropy,” DVLF continues to foster positive change through its yearly grantmaking, scholarships, advocacy, community leadership development and education.

Tell me a little about this year’s TOY Drive. Where is it being held, and who benefits from the toys collected? 

DVLF’s Holiday TOY Drive event is our largest fundraiser, and this year it is on Dec. 14 from 7 p.m. – 10 p.m. It’s going to take place at the African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP) over at 7th and Arch. Our TOY event has become one of the top premier holiday events, last year having brought together more than 250 attendees. It’s really where the community comes together to celebrate 26 years of empowering and advancing the LGBTQ+ community. The toys and donations made in lieu of bringing a toy that we collect will be donated to Actions Wellness to brighten up the lives of the children and families they serve.

Who and what’s going to be at the event this year? Special guests, musicians, DJ, swag bag, etc. 

The theme for our TOY Drive is Tinsel and ‘Tinis that is sure to create a joyous and celebratory environment while we celebrate the diversity of our community at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, which, FYI was the first institution built by a major United States city to house and interpret the life and work of African Americans. How beautiful is that? We’re honored to be there. The event includes an open bar with a specialty martini, hor’s d ‘oeuvres, a silent auction, our 2019-20 LGBTQ+ Emerging Needs grant checks presentation, music by DJ Carl Michaels, who has been making Philly’s LGBTQ+ community dance for 20+ years, and access to the museum’s gallery spaces for attendees to celebrate the history, heritage and culture of African Americans.

It sounds like it’s going to be another exciting event. Back to you. When and how did you meet your partner? 

My partner Shawn and I met about a year and three months ago at a social happy hour. We’ve talked about the day we met several times because although the encounter was brief, we had a mutual sense of having a sudden connection just after saying hello that we confessed neither had felt before. We exchanged numbers before he left to go bowling with some friends, and he texted me very early the following morning. After a few texts, we agreed to meet for a drink a few days later once he was back from a work trip. [Laughing] We ended up going on three more dates that same week! 

What does he do?

Shawn is the chief of schools for the School District of Philadelphia. I could give you a long-winded description of what that means, but to keep it simple, he’s basically the second in command of the school district. I can honestly say that his passion and tireless effort to ensure he does everything he can to improve the educational experiences for all students, and in particular for Black and Brown students, is something that I deeply admire about him.

What’s your favorite adventure with him?

It’s hard to think of just one adventure that is my favorite adventure with him because we are both wanderlusts when it comes to traveling. With that said, I think my favorite thing about our adventures is that we are both always willing and ready to go on adventures. Whether it be trips that were planned months in advance or weekend trips that came to fruition a day or two after it came to mind, this freeness and willingness to travel is truly something I cherish about us.

Now for some random questions: What languages do you know how to speak? 

I speak two: English and Spanish. It’s funny, although most people know I was born in Colombia, some people forget that my first language is Spanish.

What’s your best or craziest travel moment?

One of my best and craziest travel moments happened when I was on a medical mission trip in Ecuador. While I was traveling between mobile clinics, my official travel documents were stolen. That resulted in a lengthy immigration process that extended my stay for an additional month. Although I was experiencing incredible anxiety, I decided to seek out volunteer opportunities and was welcomed at the El Eugenio Espejo Specialty Hospital department of Cardiology and Cardiac Surgery. While there, I observed various open-heart surgeries and was given the incredible opportunity to use the clinical skills I learned while working with the heart failure physicians at Temple University Hospital to help complete cardiac physical examinations. I’ll forever cherish the incredible and humbling experience, and will never forget the name “Doctorcito Juancito” — this was the name given to me by Carmen, a patient who was admitted for treatment based on my assessment.

If you had a late-night talk show, who would you invite as your first three guests?

If they could be anyone, I would invite John Legend, Freddie Mercury and Beyonce.

What is your favorite item that you’ve bought this year?

This may seem like a boring answer, but the new sectional sofa Shawn and I got for the apartment we moved into in August is my absolute favorite item I’ve bought this year. It’s super comfy, and our two pups love napping on it. It’s also great for company because it seats five to six people comfortably.

OK, I guess the after party is at your house!

Newsletter Sign-up