Tony Lima's Redemption: Leading SunServe to New Heights After Adversity

Tony Lima. Photo by Matthew Tippins.

On the eve of SunServe’s sold-out fundraising gala, CEO Tony Lima says he has lots to celebrate.

  • Since Lima began heading the LGBTQ community services organization in late 2021, SunServe nearly doubled its operating budget from $2.2 million to about $4 million, and now provides support to more than 8,000 area trans people, youths, seniors and women.
  • SunServe, which provides mental health, housing and substance use recovery services, is preparing to open a third campus in downtown Fort Lauderdale, in addition to its offices in south Fort Lauderdale and along Wilton Drive in Wilton Manors.
  • And on a much more personal level, Lima recently celebrated his 50th birthday – and is ready to talk of his longtime career in nonprofits and how he bounced back following his highly publicized firing in 2019 as executive director of LGBTQ-rights group SAVE.

“It destroyed all of me. It broke my heart. I felt betrayed. I felt sort of left alone, high and dry,” said Lima, who was born Feb. 4, 1974, and raised near Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.

“I'm the oldest of three children – three boys. My parents came to this country when they were young. … My parents are only 20 years older than I am,” he said. “So I've always had big allies and supporters in my parents. They're Cuban. They are very progressive. Extremely democratic in every way. Although my father is still one of those Cuban machos that you hear a lot of rhetoric.”

The family moved to Miami Lakes when Lima was in elementary school. 

“I went from being with a bunch of Latino kids in Little Havana to going up to Miami Lakes, where my brothers and I were among the few Latinos at [Palm Springs North Elementary]. That’s when I became ‘Tony.’ My very American teacher did not like to say ‘Antonio’ while she was calling roll call in the morning.”

Lima said he liked his new first name. 

“I kept it because even during that time I knew that my brothers and I were a little bit different. But we had to be able to compete with the rest of the kids. I wanted at that time to assimilate or acculturate as much as possible. So, Tony made sense. Tony was great. And, actually, I kept it for the rest of my life. I've been Tony Lima always.”

After graduating from American Senior High School, he attended Florida State University and graduated in 1996 with a degree in English and Communications.

Lima said his experience as a bilingual Cuban American in Tallahassee in the early 1990s further confirmed that “in order to be able to compete with my white counterparts, I had to work a little bit harder.”

“I learned to use the tokenization of who I was for a benefit. And that's been pervasive throughout my career. It's almost like I knew I had to be able to use whatever opportunity was coming my way.”

Lima dated women throughout high school and college, even though since childhood he was more strongly attracted to men. His Cuban grandfather used to take him to Baltimore Orioles practice games in Miami.

“I knew very early on when I was 6, 7, 8, 9, that I was very attracted to these baseball players with mustaches and really big legs,” Lima said. “I always felt very drawn to them. You know, I remember early on being very excited to go to the baseball games with my grandfather. Not because I necessarily cared about baseball, but because I liked looking at the baseball players.”

While still dating women at FSU, Lima “experimented with guys.” He came out as gay at 22, during a short internship in Los Angeles, when he fell in love with an Irish animator at Disney.

“My first romance with a man – and to this day he's still one of my closest friends.”

Back in Miami, Lima got a job in the marketing department at Northern Trust Bank. He stayed four years, then briefly worked for the Performing Arts Center Foundation in Miami (predecessor of the Adrienne Arsht Center).

In 1999, Lima joined The Nixon Group, a social marketing agency primarily known for the national “Truth” anti-tobacco campaign aimed at teenagers. Golin/Harris International (now Golin) acquired The Nixon Group in 2002 and Lima stayed on board, working as the “safe, gay Latino guy” with multicultural national accounts including Coca-Cola, Royal Caribbean, Levi's, Staples and CVS.

In 2007, Lima joined the Miami Science Museum near Coconut Grove as its marketing vice president. In 2012, he oversaw the museum’s groundbreaking for its eventual move to downtown Miami as the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science.

A year later, SAVE Executive Director C.J. Ortuño left the Miami-based organization and relocated. SAVE board chair Joseph Falk, also a Science Museum board member, asked Lima if he’d be interested in the job.

“C.J. was Latino, but really didn't speak Spanish. They wanted someone bilingual, someone that had strength in marketing, someone that was a good fundraiser,” said Lima, who had been a SAVE volunteer and co-chair of the group’s annual Halloween fundraiser in 2011 and 2012.

Lima became SAVE executive director in September 2013.

“Joe prepared me well to take on the opportunity. And Joe sort of became like a godfather to me, helping me meet people that would help me not only fundraise but gain the credibility that I needed within the community as a young guy who was sort of new into the LGBTQ space.”

Among the highlights of Lima’s time at SAVE:

  • In 2014, Miami-Dade County expanded its human rights ordinance to include transgender and gender-nonconforming people.
  • Also in 2014, SAVE with the ACLU of Florida successfully sued Florida to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in other states and countries.
  • In 2016, SAVE launched a “prejudice reduction” campaign in which volunteers walked door-to-door throughout Miami-Dade County meeting people and answering questions about LGBTQ issues.

In 2018, the Miami Dolphins recognized Lima with its NFL Hispanic Heritage Leadership Award. “Under Lima’s leadership, SAVE has made its most significant strides toward achieving equal rights for persons of all sexual orientations and gender identities throughout the organization’s 25-year history,” according to a Dolphins news release at the time.

Lima had been instrumental in helping the Dolphins launch its Football Unites program, which today supports South Florida LGBTQ groups including SAVE, Equality Florida and SunServe.

Early in Lima’s tenure at SAVE, he stepped on some progressives’ toes by working closely with GOP politicians in Miami-Dade County and throughout Florida.

“Conservatives on the Right Side of Equality [were] monumental to help not only pass the human-rights ordinance [expansion] in Miami, but also to get the first – and the only to this day – hearing of the Florida Competitive Workforce Act in Tallahassee,” Lima said.

In May 2016, Lima and SAVE launched a bilingual video campaign featuring longtime Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, her husband former U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen and their transgender son, Rodrigo (now executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality). 

"By actively changing the hearts and minds of voters in this way, it also brings us closer to the tipping point of public opinion that will prompt lawmakers to make Florida the first in the south to pass statewide nondiscrimination protections for the LGBTQ community," Lima told the Miami Herald at the time.

He was wrong. 

Lima didn’t anticipate that six months later, Donald Trump would be elected president, the Republican Party would steer far to the right and that Ros-Lehtinen would end her 30-year tenure as Miami’s congresswoman.

“The climate changed dramatically,” Lima now says. “There is no longer such a thing as a moderate Republican.”

During Lima’s time at SAVE, the organization's staff grew from 1.5 employees to seven.

“When I started at SAVE, we had a budget of about $350,000. And by the time that I left, it was over $1 million. SAVE relied heavily on my fundraising in order to survive. We didn't have grants that came our way pretty easily, given the work that we did.”

Some LGBTQ activists, though, were annoyed with Lima’s leadership style, especially his apparent love for the spotlight.

“It was a necessity,” he now says. “The reason I was out front was because I had at that point six [other] people to support on my staff, and work to be done, and the more out front that I could be, the more fundraising I would do. And the proof was in the financial books.”

David Jobin, CEO/President of LGBTQ-focused Our Fund Foundation, said he understands Lima’s fundraising philosophy.

“You have to work to get that spotlight on you. [There are] a lot of competing agencies and causes. It’s in large part the executive director’s job to make an organization stand out,” said Jobin, whose foundation has contributed nearly $150,000 to SAVE since 2012. 

“What Tony does so well, and maybe better than anyone, is he knows how to pivot and put that spotlight right back on the organization. I’ve never seen him once, kind of languish with the attention on him.”

Lima’s tenure at SAVE came crashing down in June 2019, just after the organization’s successful 2019 Champions of Equality awards dinner at the Dolphins’ Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens.

During the ceremony, Lima introduced four young men as being “wrongfully accused” of attacking a gay couple leaving Miami Beach Pride the year before. 

Lima quickly apologized, saying he didn’t remember saying the four were “wrongly accused” and telling CBS News Miami at the time he "wanted to give [them] the opportunity to make themselves better.” 

In October 2022, the four pleaded guilty to two counts of battery with prejudice (second-degree felonies), avoiding a jury trial and possible 15-year prison sentences.

Lima says a settlement agreement when he left SAVE prevents him from talking specifically about what led to his departure.

“I never evaded responsibility, but I'll tell you I never made any decisions alone. I can tell you that. I never did anything that my board wasn't conscious of,” Lima said. “I took responsibility, and I don't regret anything that I did. I can tell you that much.”

Said Jobin: “There’s no getting around the fact that [Lima] was an excellent leader at SAVE. It was an excellent organization doing great work, and I don’t think anyone should be judged only by their worst decision.”

Lima said his public firing “affected me at the very core of who I was.”

“What I will say is that I learned a lot from that experience. It broke me down completely as a human being, and I had to pull myself up.”

He quickly landed on his feet, accepting a job with Tallahassee lobbyist Patrick Slevin, who had worked with SAVE during the Conservatives on the Right Side of Equality campaign.

Lima also began volunteering for Arianna’s Center, a Fort Lauderdale-based advocacy space for trans women founded by Peruvian-born lawyer Arianna Lint.

“Arianna was someone that was always very supportive of me through this entire thing,” Lima said. “I had helped her a lot at the beginning of her career here in South Florida after she came from Orlando, and I helped her establish Arianna’s Center, and helped her fundraise, and helped her write grants, and helped her build a structure for her organization.”

Suddenly, Arianna’s Center “landed a wonderful grant from the Elton John Foundation” and Lima went to work full-time there, along with Alex Spriggs, who had been Lima’s assistant at SAVE.


Dr. Guillermo Salinas, Tony’s boyfriend, and parents Esther and Antonio Lima. Courtesy photo.

During the pandemic, Lima said he, his mother Esther and his brothers became caregivers for their retired father Antonio, who suffers from “very severe depression” and other mental health issues.

“It's been a lot here at once, but gave me a newfound strength and newfound purpose. I knew that that moment from SAVE didn't define me by far. I knew that I had to move away from it, but there were some psychological issues to work through.”

And work through them, he did.  

“I was depressed, and I was pretty broken, but having to take care of my dad, having to support my mom, working with Arianna, and having a real strong sense of purpose.”

Lima also began co-hosting Queer News Tonight on the streaming Happening Out Television Network. That’s when he met Fay Albernas, known professionally as Fay What?!, OutSFL’s 2024 Local Person of the Year.

Albernas overcame homelessness and alcoholism to become a leading voice in South Florida’s LGBTQ community. She and Lima quickly became close friends.

“It was like we knew each other for decades,” Albernas said. “I know that sounds so super cliché, but I feel like we've had a lot of the same struggles. [There are] not a lot of Latinos that really do this kind of work in Broward. And he was one of those Latinos. So, we just instantly became bonded. Now that I look back on 2020 and say, ‘Holy crap! He was in the midst of it during that time.’ And I forget that. It was not an easy time for him.”

Albernas describes Lima as “a phoenix” and says the LGBTQ community can at times be “very judgy.”

“We’re very, very judgy,” she said. “And we don’t forget. We remember something you do bad forever. But we forget the million things you do good.”

In September 2020, Lima said, he began Zoom discussions with SunServe board members about him becoming the organization’s executive director.

“SunServe had been in flux. Quite honestly, in a bit of a downward spiral,” Lima said. “They had been without leadership for a very long time. Almost two years. The pandemic had hit. The board had put three people in charge that weren’t the right people for the job at the time. And the organization had suffered greatly.”

And Lima had his doubts he was the right fit as well. 

“And, my sense, as I was on the verge of accepting the job, was that it wasn't the right time for me to be there, because it's almost like they were too far gone. They had lost a lot of donors. They had lost a lot of support.”

Soon after, Lima spoke about SunServe with Out Fund’s Jobin and other community leaders.

“They knew of SunServe and the great work that SunServe does. And they realized that SunServe wasn't in a good place but didn't realize to the level,” Lima said. “At that point, Our Fund got very involved. They put their CFO on the board. They helped SunServe stabilize with additional funding.”

In November 2021, “with David Jobin's support – and really pushing me,” Lima took the job of SunServe’s chief executive officer.

“Honestly, his work at Arianna’s Center impressed me,” Jobin said. “He really restored my confidence in him.”

SunServe now employs 44 people, including Spriggs, the organization’s vice president of programs. “And they're all completely representative of the community,” Lima said. “Diversity-wise, we are equal parts Black, Latino, white. We have the organization that has the most amount of trans folks in directorial positions and in senior-level staff anywhere in the community.”

Fundraising has also diversified, he said. 

“SunServe was completely dependent on the governmental and quasi-governmental grants that help support each of our eight departments. And a small group of donors,” Lima said. “We've been able to start a corporate giving program with sponsorships from the Miami Dolphins, ViiV Pharmaceuticals, Gilead Sciences. A lot of the folks that have followed me to each of my organizations. Other corporations like Genesis Health in Wilton Manors. We've also tried to bring in more business support from the local organizations and businesses in the community.”

At the Florida AIDS Walk in March, “we were the top fundraising team,” he said. “We were the largest team. I was the top fundraiser in all of South Florida, as well, because I get my team involved.”

Lima also makes sure the community knows what SunServe does. Among the group’s top services: 

  • A youth center that provides psychiatric therapy, life coaching, to clients 3 to 24 years and their families.
  • Sunshine Pride House, Broward County’s first LGBTQ-focused homeless youth home in conjunction with the Flight Center, with beds for up to 12 young people.
  • Free psychiatric therapy, life coaching, group therapy for anyone in the community who needs it.

“And our senior center, which provides daycare services to our most frail seniors. These are people that are either on the dementia spectrum or have mobility issues,” Lima said. “That department is very near and dear to my heart because of my own family situation.”

SunServe’s sold-out April 5 gala at The Venue in Wilton Manors is the third since Lima became CEO:

“For me, it was important to have a very public event that not only served as a fundraiser but served as an immediate and very thorough opportunity to educate people in our community on the services that we provide and our mission as a whole – specifically the donor community.

“Every dollar that we raise with that Gala, whether it be for ticket sales, whether it be for sponsorships, whether it be for our raffle, whether it be for the live ask we make that night, all of it goes to Florida AIDS Walk. It's all matched dollar for dollar by AIDS Healthcare Foundation.”

SunServe has a “strategic partnership” with AHF, according to Lima.

“If someone is tested by our team, and they're HIV positive, we send them to AHF, and they can get on medication immediately, or they can get on PrEP or whatever medication they need. They get medical healthcare in general. And in exchange, AHF also sends people for mental healthcare support to SunServe.”

SunServe, which opened in 2002, currently has its main office at 2312 Wilton Dr. in Wilton Manors and its Youth and Family Center at 1480 SW Ninth Ave. in Fort Lauderdale. In early 2025, SunServe’s psychiatrist, therapists and clinical workers will move to the AHF campus at 750 SE Third Ave., Fort Lauderdale.

Since 2011, Our Fund has given SunServe grants worth about $905,000.

“It’s really solidified its place as a critical resource,” Jobin said of SunServe. “It’s doubled in size since [Lima] got there – and it doubled its impact. Without mental health support, our community would suffer greatly. We are a marginalized community and we suffer greater mental-health disparities. SunServe is the first building block to a healthy community.”

Journalist Steve Rothaus covered LGBTQ issues for 22 years at the Miami Herald. He also received SAVE’s Equality Icon award at the 2019 Champions of Equality dinner at Hard Rock Stadium. @steve.rothaus on Threads.


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