SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — In the late '80s Gary Cheatham founded Auntie Helen's in a one-car garage in North Park in 1988.
Gary did fluff-and-fold laundry first for one, then for a handful of friends who were sick with AIDS.
"Everybody could do it. But nobody would do it. And I think that makes him a superhero in my eyes," says Auntie Helen's current Executive Director, Rod Legg.
Fear and stigma at the time hurt the LGBT community as much as the disease, but word spread quickly about Gary's services, and Auntie Helen's grew. Sadly, so did the disease.
HIV and AIDS claimed more than 100,000 lives in the U.S. in the 1980s. Many of Gary's clients and friends who died willed their estates to Auntie Helen's.
Their belongings accumulated in Gary's garage, which was also where he did laundry. Eventually, with help from a few high-powered friends and other activists, Gary opened Auntie Helen's thrift store in 1989.
The laundry service and the thrift store are still located in North Park.
"We also do COVID-19 [laundry], which is our frontline medical workers. That's a tie in to the past, we had to do that. We had to offer that," Legg says.
They're expanding the store, and their outreach, giving out free groceries to their regular clients (about 25-35 individuals) and now also to frontline workers.
With COVID-19 leaving so many more people on hard times, they started delivering groceries — no questions asked, no referral needed. At one point, to more than 300 people.
Legg explains, "this is everybody's HIV in a sense... We don't know where we're at. We're all wondering what's going to happen the next day, but most importantly is neighbor to neighbor we need to make sure we're taking care of each other."
All in keeping with the legacy of Gary Cheatham, about whom, Legg says, "this man was way before his time... Can you imagine the faces of the people that got the hugs, and the clothes? We should all be our heroes, for each other."