Exclusive interview on the actions and activism of Thelma D. Jones

By Mike Goodman

Thelma D. Jones of Southwest, pictured with then-Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden, at a Breast Cancer Awareness Month celebration in 2012; Courtesy of The White House

Thelma D. Jones has been a resident of Southwest since July 1976, and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, she has been handing out meals and essential supplies to her neighbors. While active in the community for many years, she is best known for founding the Thelma D. Jones Breast Cancer Support Group in April 2010, which then grew into the Thelma D. Jones Breast Cancer Fund (TDJBCF) in September 2012 on the occasion of her 60th birthday. 

Jones is also very active with the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly (SWNA). She joined the board of SWNA in March 1982 as a District Representative and held positions of increasing responsibilities, including vice president, president, chair of the nominating committee (at least eight consecutive times), elections chair, assistant editor and staff writer of The Southwester, fundraising chair, chair of the Education and Scholarship Task Force (at least twice), and co-chair of the Emergency Preparedness Task Force. Currently, she serves as the Chair of the History Task Force Subcommittee on Black History, chair of Youth Activities Task Force and member of SWNA’s Communications Committee, which organizes monthly forums. She created SWNA’s Black History program in 1985 and organized SWNA’s first Black History Program in February 1986, having been involved with almost all of the Black History Programs since its inception.

With this depth of experience and leadership in the neighborhood, The Southwester sought out her plans and advice as DC, and the country, seek to turn the page in 2021.

What does the Thelma D. Jones Breast Cancer Fund have planned for this year? 

We have several plans for this year. The TDJBCF plans to stay the course on mission driven efforts while being more aggressive in the grantmaking and fundraising area. In that vein, we plan to continue our ongoing partnership efforts with Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center on three grants involving breast cancer survivors while developing other partnerships through grant efforts. The TDJBCF would like to provide greater financial support in the area of utilities (gas, water, electricity, phone bills), thereby developing a Utilities Fund to help defray the cost of utilities during this difficult period. The TDJBCF is really excited about the possibility of conducting breast health awareness classes with the Richard Wright Public Charter School students and has held some positive and encouraging conversations on this proposed effort.

You have really stepped up during COVID, leading local efforts to feed Southwest residents. Tell us how you got involved with that and a little more about your work in this space during the pandemic. 

For more than four years, Christine Spencer at James Creek Resident Council would share “surplus” food from the Capital Area Food Bank with the seniors at River Park. Consequently, when COVID-19 struck, we had an established relationship to build on. Since April 2020, the TDJBCF and its dedicated volunteers have distributed more than 13,000 daily meals from World Central Kitchen and other sources to the seniors, and immune compromised residents at River Park, thanks to the support of River Park Management. SWBID has also been a valuable partner in this effort. In addition, we have distributed approximately 10 distributions of fresh food from RJ Williams Seafood and other sources. Also, through a partnership with the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge Project, the African Women Cancer Awareness Association, Ford Warriors in Pink, and the Georgetown Lombardi Cancer Center, we have distributed dozens of masks, hand sanitizers, personal products and cleaning supplies to hundreds of River Park residence. The meals program is not just about food insecurity. It’s decreasing a lot of social isolation, providing emotional support, reducing grocery bills, reducing their risk of COVID-19 by not having to visit the grocery stores, connecting them to a range of social services and encouraging physical activity.

Turning to more of a national outlook, you have some history with President Biden and Dr. Biden. Tell us about that history. 

As the State Lead Ambassador for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACSCAN), I was selected to participate in a White House panel discussion on breast cancer. Shortly thereafter, I was invited by The White House to serve on a panel with Dr. Jill Biden, Actress Jennifer Anniston and then HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in preparation of the opening of a new state-of-the-art breast cancer treatment center in Alexandria, VA. During Breast Cancer Awareness Month for two consecutive years, I was invited to the residence of Vice President Biden and Dr. Jill Biden. In June 2016, I was selected by ACSCAN to represent the organization at Vice President Biden’s White House Moonshot Summit held at Howard University with over 350 guests present. I believe that having been selected as a White House Champions of Change in 2011 positioned me to be selected for our national opportunities during the Obama-Biden Administration.

If you could tell your Southwest neighbors one thing right now, what would it be? 

I would share how badly we needed a plan to slow or stop the growth of gentrification and the rising cost of housing in this area so that a welcome balance of residents could reside here. Then I would organize a coalition to help create a model plan that would benefit our neighborhood as well as other neighborhoods that are experiencing the same challenges. Living on a fixed income that’s not keeping up with the rate of inflation while still faced with high out-of-pocket medical bills from an aggressive form of cancer, I am experiencing anxiety and concern that I will be unable to live here. This is so unfortunate as this is my home, and I have dedicated and committed a significant amount of my life, as demonstrated by the various positions held with SWNA, in trying to support, grow and maintain this community. To those who ask why don’t I move to a more affordable location, this is my home that I helped to build.

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