Thelma D. Jones. Courtesy of Fredo Vasquez

By Mike Goodman

As the country looks forward to celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day – a day of service and “a day on, not a day off” – The Southwester sat down with one of our own community’s volunteer leaders, Thelma D. Jones. Jones was recently honored for her lifetime commitment to volunteer work, receiving the President Joseph R. Biden Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award, commemorating over 4,000 community service hours. The President’s Volunteer Service Award, established in 2003 and led by AmeriCorps, recognizes the important role of volunteers in America’s strength and national identity, and honors individuals whose service positively impacts communities throughout the country. There will be a reception honoring Jones on Saturday, Jan. 13 at Westminster Church (400 I Street, SW), hosted by the Board of Directors of the Thelma D. Jones Breast Cancer Fund (TDJBCF). All are welcome to attend.

Jones is known throughout the community for her work providing food to those in need, her founding of the Southwest-based TDJBCF, and her volunteer work with the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly (SWNA), St. Augustine’s and Westminster Churches, and Southwest DC Action. The Southwester sat down with Jones to catch up on her latest efforts, ask her about the award, and get her thoughts about our community. The following are excerpts from that interview:

We’re entering 2024, and these last few years have certainly been a time of change in DC and the country. What have the past few years meant to you? What has kept you busy recently?

Thank you for asking. What has kept me busy have been a few things. One is the food program that the TDJBCF started at the outset of COVID in March 2020 at River Park, in partnership with the James Creek Resident Council and the SWBID. It is a COVID outreach program with dedicated volunteers who distribute meals to seniors and others in need. Originally, we were distributing 50-60 meals daily, including on Saturdays from sources such as World Central Kitchen and DC Central Kitchen. We’d also take the surplus lunches around the community where I knew seniors and others in need lived. Shortly after, we started receiving bags of fresh produce from at least two or three different sources. Today, we receive meals and fresh produce at least six times monthly with the Capital Area Food Bank being one of the main providers.

It’s wonderful that we don’t live in a food desert, as some communities do, but we do have a lot of seniors here and with COVID occurring, it poses a challenge for them to go grocery shopping which could put them at greater risk of catching the virus. So, we feel good about being able to reduce the likelihood of getting the virus and, because some are shut-in, we help to reduce their loneliness. As you know this is a big problem now in our country. We also helped them with picking up their prescriptions, transporting them to get their COVID vaccinations, and doing additional grocery shopping for them.

The other thing that has kept me busy is my breast cancer organization. We were handing out masks and hand sanitizer, and Georgetown University became aware of my effort, so they awarded me a small grant, as those masks are expensive. In addition, I was doing a lot of phone conversations with the patient navigation work that I do, especially after COVID shut down everything. So, the people that would normally be helping to schedule mammograms and helping survivors get to and from their doctor’s appointment – all had a change in roles. There was also a lot of emotional support needed so I spent time talking to survivors – holding hands over the phone – because there were a lot of frightened and anxious survivors in Southwest with whom I had the opportunity to work with regularly. 

Prior to that, I started the TDJBCF. I didn’t know about the breast cancer death rate or that many breast cancer survivors lived in Southwest at the time, but I was aware that there were some issues with breast cancer here. I am grateful to George Washington Cancer Center, who motivated me to start my breast cancer organization. When I was there for an appointment as a newly diagnosed survivor and mentioned something about starting a support group, they said “you really should start that, as there’s a lot of people in Southwest who could use your help” because they were GW patients. So, my personal journey became a motivation to start my support group which was modeled after the support group at the World Bank which is where I retired from after more than 33 years.

When was that when you started the Thelma D. Jones Breast Cancer Fund?

The TDJBCF was born in April 2010 as a support group and ever since then we have held a monthly support group meeting except for once, and that was when the metro shut down. We do not only address the needs of Southwest residents, but also it is a regional nonprofit serving the DMV and beyond to help reduce the incidence and mortality rates of breast cancer. Of course, when COVID occurred, and everything shut down, we instantly pivoted to an online format. We now reach people in six different countries, including Barbados, Bermuda, Jamaica, Mexico, Guatemala, and Spain and about 18 to 20 states in the US. So, the online platform has really helped to reach a diverse audience. 

Let’s switch to a little more recently, in October 2023, when you were awarded the Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award for a lifelong commitment to volunteerism and service. What does that award mean to you?

It was a big surprise that I received the award. It really said to me that someone noticed what I was doing, that they appreciated it, and that what I was doing was making a difference and impacting the lives of many people.

I was really honored when I got the award. Jan Adams, Founder and CEO of JMA Solutions, a philanthropist and a TDJBCF honorary board member nominated me. I instantly thought “Oh gee! My parents would have loved to have seen me receive this,” or at least known about it, because they are the alpha of my involvement in volunteerism. They were actively involved in the community in rural Snow Hill, NC, which is in the eastern part of the state. So, I grew up on a farm. My parents were sharecropper farmers, and my mom was also a midwife. Anytime you’re involved in the health care field, you see the gamut of what’s going on. In addition to the farm work and her midwifery career, they were actively involved in the community. My mom was a member of the NAACP and my dad always drove her to all the meetings and events. My mom was also a PTA president. They were both actively involved in the voter registration drives and my dad was the substitute bus driver for our Sunday school, where I also did a lot of volunteer work. I taught classes, and was the Secretary of our Sunday School, and occasionally had to fill in as Acting Superintendent of the Sunday School.

I still appreciate what Shady Grove Free Will Baptist Church, my childhood church, did in terms of being a tool or vehicle to help develop me. We often think about our parents and our mentors, but not establishments –being able to be a part of my Sunday School – did a lot to help develop me. And then when I was in school, I played in the school band, which was something else to help me in terms of developing team spirit and discipline. I was on my school debating team, which helped to build my speaking abilities. And years later, I would join a Toastmasters Team, which really helped develop me and prepared me for different roles in the community.

What would you say are some of your proudest accomplishments over the years?

Interestingly what I am most proud of is growing up in a strong, loving family environment. I grew up in a household with four generations. It was my siblings, my parents, my father’s mother, and my father’s mother’s father. As a single parent, I see the greatness and benefits of being in a large, loving family, and my siblings and I are still close.

Another accomplishment was being educated in a Rosenwald School in Snow Hill. The Rosenwald Schools were built by Julius Rosenwald, a philanthropist, and I’m still part of my high school alumni association.

Also, in 2018, I met a gentleman here at the Georgetown University breast cancer conference who helped to get my college, Durham College, on the national scene. Durham College was founded by an African-American woman in 1947 so you can imagine what it was like for a woman creating a school back then, that ended up graduating more than 5000 students by the time it closed in 1980. So when Durham, NC had its 150th anniversary in 2019, Durham College and its president were represented, to show what Durham was all about, and we were selected along with the likes of John Hope Franklin. We feel very good about that.

One other proud accomplishment was my years at the World Bank Group where I worked with more than 150 different nationalities for more than 33 years. I appreciate the things that the World Bank allowed me to do, much of it because of my history of volunteerism. James D. Wolfensohn, our president at the time, wanted to establish an institutional outreach program at the World Bank, as the Bank was one of the largest employers in the city, and he felt that we should be doing more for the city since we benefited from so many of the city’s resources and services. So, I was plucked to help create an institutional outreach program and am very pleased to be one of the principal founders of the World Bank’s institutional outreach program back in 1997. So essentially, I was the face and voice of the World Bank in the local community carrying out the Bank’s poverty reduction mission on the local level, in the areas of volunteerism, grants management, homelessness, working with the city, and education reform, to which I had the greatest impact and involvement. We welcomed the kids from Cardoza Senior High and Bell Multicultural High Schools into the World Bank, and I know that it was because of that program that those kids were able to visit and, in some cases, work at the World Bank. That led to other schools, including Jefferson Middle School Academy and Amidon-Bowen Elementary, visiting the World Bank lots of times.

The other thing is that through my work with SWNA, I was able to apply my skills and knowledge of the city thanks to the Bank’s institutional outreach program. So, when I approached the World Bank about creating a summer jobs program, well that was new because many of my colleagues had very unfavorable views about what that would mean. That was one of my accomplishments because there are kids who now have successful careers because they had summer job experiences at the World Bank.

That went well, but I’ll be the first to say it was very challenging. A lot of days I came home and cried because I knew that my reputation was at stake. But more importantly, I knew that if the program didn’t succeed, there would be a lot of kids that would lose an opportunity, if I didn’t keep pushing to make the program work. And I knew it could work, because I spent many summers working with kids in Southwest and the Bank employed a Southwest youth for several years which I recommended.

When I asked the Bank to allow me to start an internship program at Howard University (HU), the Bank said, “we have not had good success at trying to employ students from Howard University,” and all I could think was, “but we have kids from Georgetown, George Washington, American and Catholic, so why not the world’s premiere African American institution?” I had to convince the Bank to empower and authorize me to start an HU internship program. We did it thanks to Ofield Dukes, an instructor at HU who was a longtime Southwest resident who received numerous public relations rewards. So, my other proud accomplishment is that I did a lot of work with racial equality at the World Bank. As much as I love the institution, the World Bank has some serious challenges in racial equality, and I helped create a staff African American Association to address some of the racial challenges around recruitment, hiring, promotion, and just overall recognition of African Americans skills and abilities. That association was created on the 45th Anniversary of Brown versus Board of Education. As you know, the chief legal counsel for that case was Thurgood Marshall, a Southwest resident. I have been proud to have been a close friend with his widow, Cissy Marshal who attended St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church where I am a member. 

What other Southwest residents have had an impact on you, and how are you feeling about the current state of Southwest DC?

The late Dale MacIver [former Editor-in-Chief of The Southwester] and Neal Peirce were great mentors. I miss both. Sometimes I ask myself “what would Dale or Neal advise me to do on this?” And they both shared a fear, and one that I have, having to do with the gentrification that is occurring in Southwest. We are seeing the African American population erode, and the demographics of the community are changing, and I work with SW Action on these issues. We know that Greenleaf is slated to be demolished, essentially. When you think about urban renewal, and the history of urban renewal, and how it has impacted this community, and its effects are still very prevalent, I can’t help but wondering what else it is going to do in terms of maintaining harmonious relationships and growing as a community. 

I’ve been at River Park since 1993, but the co-op fees are rising high, so that in the last two years, I have been worried about whether I’ll be able to afford to live here. That really bothers me because I’m on a fixed income. My health is declining as I live with the side effects of a rare, aggressive, and late stage of breast cancer in remission. To know that I have generously given my life to this community and go to bed at night wondering if I’ll still be able to live here, it bothers me. It makes me think about people who don’t have the resources or advocacy wherewithal that I do. Or even worse those that haven’t been involved in the community. So, if I’ve been involved, and I fear that I’m going to be pushed out, I cannot imagine what the people in Greenleaf and other people in the community must be thinking. I don’t think that is fair. I welcome change and growth, but they should never be at the expense of the people who have been here first and who have made this their home. When people decide to come here from wherever they’re coming from, they should come with an attitude of learning about the people and history and not coming with their money and A-type personalities that they are going to fix what’s broken.

So much of society is rooted in structural, institutional or systemic, and interpersonal racism that impacts housing, jobs, health care and all the other things. And because all of this is impacted, the social determinants of health are rampant in this community. So, when you want to come and make a difference, it’s important to come with the attitude of sitting down and learning and listening about the challenges; what would they like; and how can we help them, while building trust as opposed to coming in with that great white hope attitude. 

What would you like to see happen in our community over the coming years?

One would be a more dedicated and coordinated expanded effort around youth. We could benefit from having a paid person to work with the SWNA Education and Scholarship Task Force (ESTF) and the Youth Activities Task Force (YATF), which I chair, in carrying out some of the wonderful programs and activities we are or have been doing for decades as volunteers. In both task forces, most of the people are over 70 years old. We would benefit from a coordinator, who can also relate to the kids, and work with us to bring in the institutional knowledge to educate and orient this person on what the community can do to help our youth. They are tomorrow’s future.

I think The Southwester has done a great job and obviously I’m biased, although I know how to be objective too – in highlighting our community activities, especially the things SWNA has done, from Black History, Emergency Preparedness, ESTF, and YATF. Also, my breast cancer programs and activities have all been highlighted. When we look at the changes in the community, through our Black History Program, we try to look at famous African Americans in our community like Dorothy Height, Ofield Dukes, Thurgood Marshall, Cathy Hughes, and Roger Wilkins, among others. One of the projects I hope to finish, which I started with Dale MacIver, as he kept encouraging me to work on an exhibit of famous African Americans who have lived in Southwest. We need to do this exhibit while giving credit to these many famous people who lived here in Southwest. 

Any final thoughts about the award itself that we haven’t covered?

I would hope this award would be an inspiration to others when they complain and say, “things aren’t the way they should be.” Perhaps this is inspiration, motivation, encouragement – a blueprint – that here is a person who really loves her community, and loves making a difference in the lives of the community they were born in, the church that nurtured them, their high school, their college, their place of employment, and anything they were involved in and the challenges they saw along the way were used for the greater good. We should take our life experiences to help improve and change life in general.

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