About Us

Our Story

Thrift Store Front
photo of auntie helens founders

Our Beginnings

Gary Cheatham founded Auntie Helen’s in a one-car garage in July 1988, as a fluff and fold laundry project to help one person with AIDS. After that, four very important people entered Gary’s life and put Auntie’s on very positive footing. Joan Kroc (her husband, Ray Kroc, helped start McDonald's), San Diego Mayor Maureen O’Connor, The Mayor’s twin sister Mavoureen, and the distinguished community activist Ben Dillingham. These people helped open and financially support the store in North Park where Auntie’s has been for 29 years.

Since that time, our grassroots, community-based agency has served thousands of people with HIV and AIDS, providing free laundry services for people who are too sick to do their own. Auntie Helen’s expanded to include a thrift shop in August 1989. Co-located with our laundry service, the shop financially assists the laundry operation.

Auntie Helen’s was the first program of its kind, and is still the only one of its kind currently operating in the U.S. Auntie Helen’s was named as a National Point of Light by The White House in 1991. Auntie Helen’s has also received an Apostolic Blessing from His Holiness Pope John Paul II and has been awarded many state and local honors.


Expanding Our Reach

Since our humble beginnings, 100% of the net proceeds have benefited HIV/AIDS organizations in San Diego and San Diego County. We started with a voucher program, which provided clothing and items to our referred clients, clothing and blankets for the homeless, and small food distribution for those living with HIV/AIDS. We still provide laundry services for those clients referred to us by a licensed doctor. Additionally, we have volunteers from the TRACE, ARC, and SIP programs which are all Mental Health programs with the school, county, and private sectors.


Our Broad Support

We are managed by a small staff of dedicated professionals, and many compassionate, caring volunteers. Funding for Auntie Helen’s services comes from private individuals, foundations, corporations, government sources, and Auntie Helen’s thrift store.

People Behind the scenes

Meet the makers of the magic. 

Tony Turner
Tony Turner


Tony Turner Mecado

I first volunteered for Auntie Helen's in the early 1990's. In 2018 I returned to volunteering. I joined the board in 2019 and this year became Board President.

I enjoy being part of Auntie Helen's and its mission to serve the HIV, AIDs, LGBT+ and now the wider San Diego community.

Through our thrift, volunteers and thanks to the generous donations by the San Diego Community we are growing to support those who face challenging circumstances.

Cynthia Mah
Cynthia Mah


Cynthia Mah

This dedicated board member can often be found picking up food donations and delivering to people in need.

Cynthia is a significant part of our food distribution pipeline that also depends on the nightly help of our volunteers.

It takes teams of people, both full time and hourly volunteers - working night and day - to make the magic happen behind the scenes.

photo of Rod Legg
Rod Legg


Rod Legg

I was hired as Executive Director in 2018 to save a financially burdened and mismanaged charity.

I was inspired to do what was right and needed by the founder Gary Cheatham. He did something that most would never do and made Auntie Helen’s a standout charity.

We are all about transparency in this charity and you can be sure we will continue the mission and more.


Our Partners