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Racial Justice and Social Equity

Auntie Helen’s closing after 36 years serving San Diegans with HIV/AIDS

Carole Parker can often be found at Auntie Helen’s thrift store in North Park on her electric mobility scooter, which she calls her “Mercedes.” She keeps the store phone in her front basket.

Behind her, the window display is an explosion of Christmas and gay pride — rainbow trees and sweaters and a neon sign that says “Love Wins.”

On the door, a sign hangs: “We are full up and will not be taking donations till January 2024.”


But by January, Auntie Helen’s will be closed.

Parker has been with Auntie Helen’s since the late 1980s, when it started as a laundry service for people with HIV and AIDS. It soon added a thrift store.

“I used to go in there to shop and then I got addicted to it,” Parker said. “So then I started volunteering down there.”

Parker said she began caring for several customers, all young, who passed away from the disease.

Her voice, which is difficult to hear over the ‘80s music coming from the store’s loudspeakers, gets even quieter when she talks about those early years of the epidemic.

Long-time volunteer Carole Parker sits inside Auntie Helen's thrift store on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023.
Katie Hyson
Long-time volunteer Carole Parker sits inside Auntie Helen's thrift store on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023.

So many people were dying, and there was so little understanding around why. Stigma was high. Many were afraid to be near people living with HIV/AIDS, let alone handle their clothes.

Rod Legg, Auntie Helen’s current director, said against this backdrop, founder Gary Cheatham’s act of starting a laundry service for them was radical.

“At a time when everybody ran away from the fire, in a sense, he ran towards it,” Legg said.

Over the years, Auntie Helen’s received support from celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor, and big checks from people like McDonald’s heiress Joan Kroc.

Their website spells out a big history for such a small organization. It was named as a “National Point of Light” by the White House in 1991. Pope John Paul II gave it an apostolic blessing.

Proceeds from store sales go to local HIV/AIDS organizations. The store gives vouchers for free clothing and blankets. They provide work and volunteer opportunities to the recently incarcerated and those with special needs. They host a dozen recovery meetings in a back room. And they provide groceries to 1,600 families every week, Legg said.

He hopes that legacy outweighs any misdeeds of the last director, Michael Dudley, who was accused of spending the charity’s funds on personal expenses.

This year, Auntie Helen's graced the cover of POZ magazine as one of the most impactful organizations working to end the HIV epidemic.

Auntie Helen's thrift store opens up for one of the last times on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023.
Katie Hyson
Auntie Helen's thrift store opens for one of the last times on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023.

But after almost four decades, Legg said the original mission of Auntie Helen’s is no longer needed. Powerful new HIV/AIDS medications mean patients can live much more independent lives. They can do their own laundry.

“Now the meds are so much better,” Legg said. “They don't need us to do that for them. They are physically able to do it themselves.”

Requests for physical help began to taper off in recent years. Legg said he hasn’t had a laundry request since 2020.

He plans to close the store on Dec. 31, but it won’t be the end of service to the community. He hopes to launch a new nonprofit to continue certain services, like the grocery deliveries.

Legg also dreams of a scholarship fund, in Cheatham’s name, that could go toward aspiring social workers in the field, maybe even researchers.

Parker said she hopes the spirit of Auntie Helen’s will continue.

“Get back and care,” she said. “Not nosy or anything, but get back and care about your neighbor.”