Joanie Juster, A Super Volunteer, Advocate, and All-Around Beautiful Human Being!
Last spring, we sat down with Joanie Juster, one of our super volunteers, who was previously on staff and served on the board of the AIDS Emergency Fund (AEF), the precursor to PRC’s Emergency Financial Assistance (EFA) program. Joanie has supported AEF, PRC, and so many SF nonprofits since the early 1980s. When we spoke, she had just authored an article about Jeopardy’s superstar consecutive winner Amy Schneider for her column in the Bay Area Times and had ventured to the Castro to grab some printed copies before meeting with us. We were thrilled to listen as she shared her history, experiences, and several old AEF newsletters that we had not previously seen.
Joanie moved to San Francisco from Santa Cruz in September 1978 and landed a studio apartment in the Fillmore for an unheard of $210 a month. Her grandmother had lived in the area, so it was the only section of the city she was familiar with. Her move was only two months before the tragic assassination of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone by Supervisor Dan White. Being so new to the city, Joanie still regrets that she was unable to make her way to the candlelight vigil from the Castro to City Hall.
“I was watching it on TV and sobbing because I didn’t know how to get there to join them. I literally didn’t know how to find this march. And in those days, you had to call a cab to go anywhere but I didn’t know where to tell the cab to take me. I also didn’t have cash. This was before ATMs and debit cards so even if I could figure out how to get there, I wouldn’t have been able to pay for the ride. Ever since then, I’ve made it to every anniversary march that I was able to.”
Joanie had long been active in theatre and through her charming and welcoming personality, has grown a large network of friends, many of whom are part of San Francisco’s gay community. She witnessed the AIDS pandemic take the lives of those around her, and she couldn’t just watch from the sidelines. The growing pandemic weighed heavily on her. She knew she wanted to do something to help but didn’t know where to start. Her first step was making a panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. She had been volunteering with them and continues to do so to this day. Her first AIDS Walk was in 1988. She has been actively involved ever since. The next step was becoming a practical support volunteer for Shanti Project, providing one-on-one care for Shanti’s clients. If there was ever a need for support, Joanie would provide as much as she could.
Eventually, Joanie joined the AIDS Emergency Fund Board, and later as part of the staff, she issued checks sometimes for amounts as small as $7.00 per grant to pay utility bills, medical expenses, and housing assistance. She expressed how amazed she was that an amount so small could make a difference in someone’s life and keep them going another month.
“That’s where I needed to be! Someplace where that little amount, an amount that even I could afford to donate, could make a difference for someone. That’s why I will always do grassroots fundraising, and that’s why I am forever devoted to AEF, which has now become EFA. My life would have been far less gratifying if I hadn’t done this. It changed everything for me. The people I’ve met have totally enriched my life: the living, and the dead. They’re all with me, all the time. It really does take a village, and we’ve all been a part of it.”
One of the events that Joanie loves volunteering at most is the annual PRC client Christmas Eve Dinner. For more than 30 years, local hotels, caterers, and chefs have donated their time to provide beautiful foods and desserts for the event. Each year, more than 100 volunteers served more than 1,200 clients over multiple seatings. Lee Harrington, who retired in December 2021 after 24 years as EFA’s Director of Client Services, would show up every year to sit and socialize with his clients and was known to never miss a happy holiday. For a few years, Joanie’s desk was positioned near Lee’s, and she shared how much she admired him for his dedication to EFA’s clients.
“The fact that Lee stayed with EFA for 24 years is just epic. I really don’t know of any other way to explain it. That man is truly one of my heroes.”
Joanie has a keen understanding of how important it is to document historical information, especially regarding the HIV/AIDS pandemic. She took it upon herself to collect as many of the old AEF newsletters as she could. During the current pandemic, she found herself with some free time and organized her collection to provide complete sets to friends who value them as much as she does. She even sent a set of these newsletters to the Smithsonian after they had indicated that they had limited material documenting the early days of AIDS in San Francisco, and they were thrilled to receive them. She’s single-handedly ensuring that AEF’s history is never forgotten, and even has plans to digitize them so that anyone can access them.
“What made AEF so unique was that it was built out of a grassroots community response. I used to run the school program, and we had dozens of schools bringing jars of pennies to Union Square for Every Penny Counts Day for a big public counting. It was amazing that all those kids learned about fundraising and compassion. They were able to learn about AIDS directly from volunteers who were living with the debilitating disease and would go out to the schools and tell them how their pennies help. Could you imagine doing that today?”
During Joanie’s tenure with AIDS Emergency Fund, their sister agency, the Breast Cancer Emergency Fund (BCEF) was born, and Joanie became part of that team as well. She continues supporting people with breast and ovarian cancer to this day. In 2020 BCEF became a program of Bay Area Cancer Connections (BACC), and Joanie is now on their team. She also continues volunteering for other organizations and causes.
Joanie truly has a heart of gold and inspires us all with her passion to be there when others need support. She still manages to find time to volunteer for PRC events, and we couldn’t be more grateful for everything that she does.
If you’ve enjoyed learning about Joanie and the compassion that led her to a life of serving those in need, please consider making a donation in her honor. You can learn more about all of PRC’s services on our website.