The desire and ability to give is a gift. This gift is not given to everyone. And many who are called upon to serve do not answer the call. I am grateful that I was a chosen servant and thankful that there were many hearts and souls that chose to take this journey with me.
My lifetime of service was motivated as a young child. One of seven children who grew up with very little, I watched my hard-working parents share the little we had with neighbors, family, friends and even strangers. It was a time in life where neighbors and neighborhoods were different. We shared with and looked out for each other.
As a result of growing up in that type of caring environment I knew early on that acquiring a family of like-minded folk was something that would keep me going through the adversities of my internal crises – being Black, female, lesbian and the dreaded ‘darker skinned child’ – and all that went with that.
My first instinct to rid myself of all of the stigmas attached to the ‘who’ I was centered on becoming an entrepreneur in order to make money. I figured that with money I didn’t have to care about what people thought about me. After spending years working my way out of several jobs — a stint as a boutique owner, and finally opening up the Catch in 1973, which I’m proud to say grew to become the largest Black-owned nightclub in the country and the largest gay club in Los Angeles — I finally came to the realization that it wasn’t about the money. I truly found solace in helping others. And, the desire to help others ultimately led to activism.
During the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s, I was led to help co-found the Minority AIDS Project and the Imani Unidos Food Pantry. We set up cots in the parking lot behind the Catch primarily to provide refuge for infected folk who had been turned away by their families and had no place else to go.
With my long-term spouse, Rue Thais-Williams, I co-founded Rue’s House, the first housing facility for women with AIDS and their children in the United States. Many lived and died there. It was a horrific time, but we rolled up our sleeves and did what we could to impact the crisis facing us.
Confronted with the continuing health crisis challenging the less fortunate, in 1998 at age 60, I earned a Master of Science degree in Oriental Medicine and in 2001, I opened the Village Health Foundation. In addition to offering alternative healing methods for many of the preventable illnesses like hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol, we also offered a safe haven for those already impacted with chronic HIV/AIDS disease.
Services at the Village expanded based upon need. Besides all of the health disparities facing the disenfranchised, including HIV/AIDS, herpes and the wide array of other sexually transmitted diseases, we soon found that sexuality choices also brought with it a range of other problems including poverty, homelessness, and mental health concerns related to homosexuality, homophobia and transgender issues.
Sometimes, dealing with these issues also led to drug use and abuse, alcoholism and other reckless behaviors. We had our work cut out for us. My ‘children’ needed help. But we were up for the task.
As the family continued to grow, I became mother, father, sister and cousin to my many daughters, sons, nieces, nephews, employees and friends. In addition to treating and educating my ever-expanding family, through the Village we also offer services that include nutrition counseling and pain management.
I discovered and reconfirmed over and over that giving to others actually is also giving to yourself. I never worried about giving. And, everything that I have given I’ve gotten back 100-fold. This has and continues to keep me going.
Growing older I learned to take seriously the African proverb:
When elders are lost, adults are lost;
When adults are lost, youth are lost.
We can’t afford to lose. There is too much at stake.
Like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I want to be remembered as a Champion for Justice. And as Dr. King also once said: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is ‘What are you doing for others?’” I take that as an ongoing personal challenge to myself.
I am grateful to have been allowed to play my part in positively impacting the lives of many by allowing my steps to be guided and by answering the call to serve. And, by the grace of God, I am thankful that I didn’t have to take this journey alone. Thank you to all who have been there with me.
Jewel Thais-Williams will be honored at 3 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 5 when City Council President Herb Wesson officially dedicates the ‘JEWEL THAIS-WILLIAMS SQUARE’ at the former Jewel’s Catch One, 4067 W. Pico Blvd. (at Norton Avenue, three blocks east of Crenshaw Blvd.) for her many years of service to underserved communities. This event is free and open to the public.