by Kathleen Reynolds
“Community is everything to me,” says Thelma Taylor of Yountville. “It’s so important, I can’t leave.”
Thelma has been part of the Napa community since 1984 and to say she’s a colorful character is no exaggeration.
“I’ve been married nine times,” she says. “I was 15 years old the first time I got married.” She ran away from her home in Norfolk, Virginia, with her 16-year-old fiancé in tow. “My cousin drove us across state lines so we could get married in North Carolina.”
The marriage didn’t last long before she divorced.
“I was married again when I was almost 17, to a sailor,” she says, her inflection still hinting of a Southern drawl.
The couple moved to Baltimore, and she began to drink alcohol. “He was physically abusive,” she says, “like my father. Both of my parents were alcoholics.”
They moved to Southern California in 1957 after the birth of her first child, but the drinking continued. There were several more moves around California, and five additional children—along with more divorces.
What brought Thelma to Napa involved a few steps on the way.
“I was living in Dublin and ended up with three DUIs,” she says. “I was told either addiction treatment or jail. Husband number eight got me into a six-month treatment program at Serenity House in Loomis.”
At Serenity House, she found her calling.
“I began taking classes at Sacramento State in Alcoholism and Drug Addiction which resulted in an internship that brought me to St. Helena.”She’s been sober and single since 1984.
“I didn’t know what love was,” Thelma says. “I was trying to fill a gap in my heart.”
Thelma turned her heart and her attention toward helping others. As a Mental Health Counselor at the Yountville Veteran’s Home, she worked with substance abuse clients prior to retiring 11 years ago. Her new life included volunteering at the Lincoln Theater and the Yountville Visitor’s Center. She’s also helped at the Veteran’s Home Dementia and Memory Unit.
In December 2009, Thelma joined Project KIKS, which stands for A Kind Initiative for Kids Shoes. She has served as a Founding Contributor, Board Chairwoman and volunteer. KIKS is a 501c3 charitable organization which began by distributing shoes to children in Africa and has expanded into supplying rice and installing water tanks there. The organization helped during the 2014 Ebola virus crisis, teaching Ebola prevention, hand washing and sanitation. It has donated approximately a dozen 500-gallon tanks for safe drinking water to schools for the children. In addition, they donate and distribute books to elementary students.
Project KIKS doesn’t overlook the needy closer to home.
“During the fires, we delivered shoes to local schools; we’ve supplied coats and shoes to the women at the Veteran’s Home and provided shoes to children from low-income families during Shop with a Cop at Christmastime. We often work with the Kiwanis Clubs in Napa and Yountville.”
Thelma was recently honored with a Humanitarian Award celebrated in Liberia, Ghana and South Africa on Christmas Day.
“They call me ‘Mama Thelma’ in Africa,” she says and chuckles.
In her personal life, ‘Mama Thelma’s’ six children range in age from 51 to 61: four boys and two girls. Her 25 grandchildren have produced 28 great grandkids and one great-great granddaughter.
Not content to interact only through volunteer work, Thelma leads an active lifestyle which includes dancing.
“I have been tapping for 25 years with Dolly’s Tappers,” she says. “We’ve performed all over. The last time was at the Lincoln Theater with the Veterans in Yountville. We were at every Fourth of July at the Veteran’s Home and at the Napa Valley Follies.
“Our dancers are a very close group. We get together every three months and celebrate our birthdays. We all bring funny cards and pass them around. If your birthday has a zero or a five as an ending, everyone brings you a present.”
Her hobbies don’t end there, although joint problems have slowed her down somewhat. “I love bocce ball, but my knees have prevented me from playing. I used to hike and do rock finding; especially the heart (shaped) ones.
“I love to camp and swim,” says Thelma. “As a youth, I did a lot of skating and my first job was as a curb service waitress on skates in Norfolk at Stoney’s. I also like bingo.”
Currently residing in Rancho Napa, she reiterates that community is everything to her. “All my neighbors are volunteers and I love being part of that.”
A public speaker for Alcoholics Anonymous for ten years, Thelma has traveled often but mostly speaks locally now. She is active in the Mormon Church with the Women’s Relief Society, teaching classes on spirituality and other subjects.
She will be 37 years sober this June and enjoys helping any way she can. People often come to her for advice. “I want people to know there’s always a place for them to go if they need help.”
Through volunteering or entertaining, Thelma makes commitment to the community her priority. The local area and the world at large are better, more compassionate places because of people like Thelma Taylor.