By Ian Morton | Profiles in Advocacy
Auntie Helen’s Community Thrift is poised to make an impact. From its grassroots beginnings, founded in 1988 by Gary Cheatham to address a very specific need in the HIV/AIDS community, 2016 sees a new focus and a new dedication to all individuals living with or at risk for HIV infection in San Diego County.
When Auntie Helen’s Fluff and Fold was originally founded, the need for laundry services for people living with HIV — or, at that time, dying from AIDS — was a very real thing.
In those dark days, individuals truly suffering the ravages of AIDS were denied this very basic service by friends and family and often forced to live in their own filth. There was so much misinformation as to how HIV could be spread that those most impacted by the disease became that generation’s “untouchables.”
It was also during this time that we saw the truly heroic among us rise to the occasion and support those afflicted and outcast, and Cheatham was one of those heroes.
The plan was simple; do laundry for those living with HIV who could not do for themselves. The need, Gary soon found, was profound and pervasive. Auntie Helen’s resale shop was then opened to help fund the cost for the purchase of washers, dryers, and the supplies needed to do laundry for this growing population.
Today, we talk about living with HIV, not dying from AIDS, and it is a very different landscape. Many service providers and programs, founded in the 1980s and ’90s, are starting to change to reflect the current needs of the community.
In 2015, Auntie Helen’s had to take a hard look at itself. It was a dire time for the organization; there was approximately $30 in their bank account and it seemed it might be the end.
The existing board members and volunteers needed to make a decision: how to maintain Auntie Helen’s and make the organization relevant to the changing needs of the HIV community.
A new board president — David Turner — was elected and a vision of Auntie Helen’s that truly belonged to the full community was conceived. Turner became the executive director in late 2015 and embarked on a mission that will soon come to fruition.
“We are excited about our second location at 4102 El Cajon Blvd.,” Turner said. “We will have a hip boutique-like thrift store with furniture on the first floor and clothing and accessories on the second.
“We as an organization feel it is still relevant to keep the spotlight on HIV/AIDS services needed in San Diego County and 100 percent of our net proceeds go back to the community,” he continued. “It is my vision of the organization to make Auntie Helen’s one of the largest funders of HIV/AIDS organizations in San Diego County.”
Along with this vision was a commitment by the new board to serve a broad scope of the San Diego County HIV community with their proceeds, and in 2015, Auntie Helen’s became a member of the San Diego HIV Funding Collaborative (HFC), convened at San Diego Human Dignity Foundation. The HFC is one of 13 remaining collaboratives in the U.S., and one of very few funding sources specifically earmarked for HIV services in San Diego.
In 2016, over $250,000 was funded through grants and sponsorships for HIV/AIDS support, and Auntie Helen’s wants to see that number more than double in the future.
A key to fulfilling this goal is the new 10,000-square-foot location that will be opening in City Heights in October. This “flagship location” will allow for a processing center and the sale of larger furnishing items, which will in turn create higher proceeds to be granted out to the community.
They will also step up their game with a virtual storefront for higher-ticket items and truck pick-up and delivery for donated goods and larger purchased items. Much like Revivals in the Palm Springs area supports Desert AIDS Project, Auntie Helen’s looks to become an increasingly integral part of the San Diego HIV community.
In keeping with this model, they are also seeking enthusiastic volunteers to help make this effort a success. There will be many front and back of the store positions available to accommodate a broad range of skills and abilities.
Volunteer coordinator, Jason Navarro, chatted a bit about their “dream team.”
“In developing a program that will continue to support our community’s needs, we are tasking ourselves with three specific goals that we hope our volunteers will achieve in their experience with Auntie Helen’s,” Navarro said. “These goals are focused on volunteers becoming engaged, empowered and increasingly more aware of the present needs in our HIV/AIDS community in San Diego. Every person is crucial; from our cashier, to our donation processors and merchandisers — there is a place for everyone at Auntie Helen’s!”
I closed out my discussion with Director of Operations Brendan McFarland, who said he looks forward to this endeavor and working alongside a childhood friend.
“It has been exciting to watch the vision for growth and expansion continue to manifest itself throughout this past year,” McFarland said. “I have been best friends with David Turner since we were children and it makes me smile seeing him love what he’s doing and the beautiful team of staff and volunteers that make it all possible.
“One of the main appeals is how we are helping to fund so many organizations that provide services to the community, through our partnership with the Human Dignity Foundation,” McFarland continued. “That’s what it’s all about for me … doing whatever we can, however we can, to provide as much as we can to those who need it!”
On Oct. 21, you can join Auntie Helen’s for the grand opening of their new location at 4102 El Cajon Blvd., or schedule donation pick up by calling 619-501-0209 or emailing email@example.com.
—Ian D. Morton is s freelance grant writer and the producer of Y.E.S. San Diego, an LGBTQ youth empowerment conference. To nominate an individual or nonprofit for this column, please email the information to firstname.lastname@example.org.