The House That Thelma Built

Thelma Gibson Health Initiative provides refuge and hope

Three years ago, on a sweltering summer day in Coconut Grove, Donna Wallace was in the race of her life. With crack cocaine in her possession, she led police on a frenzied foot chase through neighborhood yards. In a sense, it wasn't really the law Wallace was running from but rather the drug addiction that was destroying her life.

Wallace eluded police that day, barging through the doors of the Thelma Gibson Health Initiative. She reached into her pocket, took out her crack pipe, hurled it to the ground, and smashed it with her foot. Wallace then told a stunned group of the initiative's board members, who were holding a meeting inside, that she was ready to get help for her addiction.

Wallace has been drug-free ever since. She credits the Thelma Gibson Health Initiative for turning her life around. Wallace is not alone. Each year the program helps hundreds of Miami-Dade County's neediest residents.

"We're reaching out to people who need it most," says the initiative's president Thelma V. A. Gibson, B.S.N., R.N., a University of Miami trustee and co-chair of the Momentum campaign for the School of Nursing and Health Studies.

Coconut Grove residents lovingly refer to the initiative as the Thelma Gibson House. It exemplifies Gibson's lifelong commitment to helping others and her passion for improving the quality of life in the impoverished West Grove.

"Drug addicts walking the street, homeless people with nowhere to go-we give them a refuge, a place where they can come and sit down and have someone to talk to and get the help they need," Gibson says

Last year nearly 2,500 people received help from the initiative, which operates out of two converted homes once owned by Gibson's grandparents on a bustling stretch of Grand Avenue, as well as a satellite office in South Miami. The center's services run the gamut: from free HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C testing to substance abuse counseling, medical referrals, outreach programs for at-risk girls, and social services assistance for the elderly.

Gibson also recognizes the value of connecting students to real-world conditions and challenges. UM nursing students complete half a semester's rotation through the initiative, going into underserved communities throughout Coconut Grove, Coral Gables, and South Miami to provide free health tests, screenings, and wellness education programs. "It's one of the best hands-on experiences these nursing students will ever get-serving a part of the community many of them would otherwise never see," she says.

The Thelma Gibson Health Initiative is funded through Miami-Dade County, the City of Miami, the Public Health Trust (Jackson Health System), Dade Community Foundation, Alliance for Human Services, Women's Fund of Miami-Dade County, and community and corporate donors. The initiative is a subsidiary of the Theodore R. Gibson Memorial Fund, a nonprofit organization founded in memory of Thelma Gibson's late husband, the Reverend Theodore Gibson, a former City of Miami commissioner and pioneering civil rights activist.

Now an outreach worker for the initiative, Donna Wallace is sure she would have either been in prison or dead had it not been for the program. Wallace says the center is a godsend for the community. Gibson adds, "We give people hope."