Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Hob-snobbing with a brilliant beauty queen

As a feminist, I have my issues with beauty pageants. But then, I’m the same girl who took baton and piano lessons in search for my hidden talent; longed to wear a tutu on stage and paraded in a bouffy gown on her wedding day. I’m the woman who still has her childhood Barbies and watches “Say Yes to the Dress” marathons on cable. Socialization is a terrible thing to kick. If only there was a way to combine intellect and scholarship with celebrations of inner beauty!

My cousin Alescia Hollowell is doing just that. Alescia is a 24-year-old graduate of Cass Tech, who’s earned a B.S. at Michigan State University and a Master’s of Public Health at the University of Michigan. She’s now a PhD candidate in Community Psychology from DePaul University—and she’s a contestant for Miss Black USA.

Yep, that blew my mind, too. Evidently, pageants have changed a bit since I was a little girl. Founded in 1986, the Miss Black USA Scholarship Pageant provides educational opportunities to outstanding young women of color, developing the "whole woman mind, body, and spirit.” Pageant winners receive scholarships and promote health and education, two leading social issues in the African American community. 
Alescia had never been a pageant before (probably too busy earning those post-graduate degrees). But after hearing about the program from a childhood friend, she decided to give it a try. Viola! She won Miss Black Michigan, and will be competing for the title of Miss Black USA in Washington, D.C. in August.
“I researched the organization and decided that I wanted to get involved,” said Alescia. “The young women who are a part of this pageant are examples of what it means to be a powerful, talented, and driven young black woman. It’s a platform that lets us use the skills and talents that we have been blessed with in order to impact the lives of others.”

As a public health advocate, Alescia is concerned about childhood obesity. While earning her Masters of Public Health, she interned last summer at the Genesee County Health Department in Flint, Michigan with a health program called SPROUT (Steering Prevention Reducing Obesity Utilizing Teamwork).

“I saw how environmental, cultural, and socioeconomic factors influence health behaviors and outcomes,” said Alescia. “In order to turn around the childhood obesity problem in the African American community, we have to change the environment so that healthy food is available. We have to change the culture so that our urban communities can value exercise and healthy eating—not junk food or fried foods. And we have to deal with the fact that many people are malnourished in urban centers. That’s why I decided to make childhood obesity the focus of my platform.”

We often hear about Detroit’s “brain drain,” but when do we hear about those who are giving their all to uplift the city?

“Despite the media portrayals of Detroit, I am a product of this city who has excelled and achieved,” she said. “I love the culture of the city. The hope for the future lies in Detroit’s youth.”

That’s why I’m proud that my cuz is a Detroit Snob. “Being a ‘Detroit Snob’ is someone who prevails even in the face of adversity,” said Alescia. “Marked by optimism, creativity, and a love for life, a ‘Detroit Snob’ takes pride in the city and gives back to it in order to produce a better tomorrow.”

Help Alescia compete in the Miss Black USA Scholarship Pageant!

Like” the Miss Black Michigan USA 2012 Facebook Fan page @ https://www.facebook.com/MissBlackMichigan2012

Make a donation to help Miss Black Michigan USA 2012 get to Nationals @ http://www.gofundme.com/bnz50

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Detroit Snob Tony Johnson lets his challenges be his guide


 (A version of this blog was originally printed 5/24/2012 Issue 2021 of Between The Lines News)



About eight years ago, Curtis Lipscomb attended an HIV/AIDS program in Detroit. As the founder of KICK -- a nonprofit that serves Detroit's African American, HIV-positive community -- Lipscomb had attended many such gatherings before. But this meeting in 2005 was different.
Tony Johnson (l) and KICK's Curtis Lipscomb

"Most African American gay men -- especially those with HIV -- are isolated and live in fear," said Lipscomb. "But I distinctly remember seeing Tony Johnson in that room. He wasn't like the others. He was very confident and full of faith."

The two became immediate friends, joining forces in KICK's mission to create a stigma-free, safe space for LGBT African Americans who are HIV-positive. Johnson was so taken by the mission, he started catching the bus three days a week to manage KICK's calls and to become an intake specialist.

Johnson, 47, is disabled and lives on a fixed income. In 1993, he discovered that he was HIV-positive, but the virus has been undetectable in his blood since 2004. "I've come to terms with it, but I can't believe that there are still new cases being diagnosed," he said. "If I can save one person from getting it, it's worth it."
Lipscomb quickly discovered that he had not only gained a friend, but a valuable ally in the fight against AIDS.

"When you are in crisis and you call KICK, you get Tony -- a real, warm, caring person to help guide you," said Lipscomb, whose organization receives no public funding. "He's the frontline person for our organization, and the key to our development."

Eight years later, Johnson is still riding the bus to work at KICK three days a week. What makes it remarkable is that Johnson has never been paid a dime.

Leadership through serving others

Don't bother talking to Johnson about his leadership in Detroit's African American, LGBT community -- it would only embarrass him. He's more interested in talking about service.

"I decided that I can't stay at home and do nothing," said Johnson. "I have to get out and help others."
He not only volunteers with KICK, but he also serves at the United Sisters of Charity soup kitchen in Highland Park twice a week. He is also one of the founding members of a support group for HIV-positive veterans.

"I was despondent three years ago when a social worker referred me to the support group," said Sidney Skipper, a veteran and retired medical technician who is both HIV-positive and bipolar. "I had given up on everything. But Tony helped me realize that when you help others, you find your voice and realize you have something to say. When you help others, it lifts you up as well."

The difference between Tony and most people, Skipper added, is that he isn't in it for personal gratification. "If you're volunteering to seek reward, you'll quit after awhile, and move on to something else," said Skipper, 60. "Tony doesn't seek reward. He's in it for the long haul."

Lipscomb agreed. "You can't have a movement without people willing to give their time and talent to the cause," he said. "Tony doesn't need his shoulders brushed off or his collar popped up. He comes from that spirit."

What makes him tick?

The drive to serve others seems to be natural for Johnson, but it's derived from a lifetime of struggle.

The oldest of three children, Johnson was raised on Detroit's west side by his mother and grandmother.
Tony with his mother and nephew
"I never had a coming out," Johnson, who announced his sexual orientation to his family at age 23. "They said that they already knew. I wondered why I hadn't gotten the memo!"

But that doesn't mean that he didn't suffer the same kind of backlash that LGBT people often experience in the black community.

"I knew I was different from the age of 9," said Johnson. "I remember one of my grandmother's friends talking in another room. I heard him say, 'He's going to be gay.' The way he said it, it was as if I was nasty or dirty. My grandmother said, 'That's my baby. If he is, he is.' But I was hurt. People don't realize the ramifications of what they say to children."

As he grew up, Johnson pretended to be straight to make life easier. In high school, he dated a girl from another part of town.

"Her father said, 'My daughter isn't having sex until she's married,'" said Johnson. "Well, that was fine with me."

In 1984, Johnson enlisted in the Army in order to save money for college, but mostly to get away from his family. "I wanted to explore who I was," he said, "but I went out of the frying pan into the fire."

He wasn't prepared for the physical rigors of military basic training. And the taste of independence made it harder for him to live an inauthentic life. By the time he left the service three years later, he was ready to live independently as an openly gay man. But the pull of family was too much.

In 1987, his grandfather got ill, and it was assumed that Johnson would be the one to take care of him. "Sometimes family members assume that because you're gay and you don't have kids, that you are always available to babysit, or give them money," said Johnson, the oldest grandchild. "They think you don't have a life."

Then, in 1993, Johnson faced his first major health crisis. "I found out that I was HIV-positive," said Johnson, whose partner at the time stood by him. "I was devastated. I thought people would be able to read it on my face."

As the person who was used to giving to others, Johnson found it difficult to lean on others. But he found that he had many friends and supporters. His boss noticed his medication in his cubicle at work. "Her friend had died from HIV and she knew what was happening to me," he said. "She became my ally."

In 1999 at age 35, he suffered a stroke. His boss paid his insurance co-pay for several months as he recovered. He was never able to go back to work. Seven years later, he had a second stroke that left him in a coma for two months.

As he battled back to health, he tried to make sense of all of his life. "I believe that God left me here for a reason," he said.

That reason, he believes, is to make life better for others. That's what drives Johnson to volunteer as dependably as if he were earning a paycheck. That's what pushes him to share little gifts with his fellow bus riders, or a joke with the people in the soup line.

"At the soup kitchen they say that I'm always so happy," said Tony. "But you have to laugh to keep from crying. If they had to walk one day in my shoes, I don't think they could handle it."


Thursday, April 19, 2012

Hob-Snobbing--Shedding light on Detroit one candle at a time

If your goal is to shed the light all over the city, a good place to start would be with a candle company. But for Tonette Katrese Arnold, owner of the Detroit Candle Co., the best place to start was with herself.

Just three years ago, Tonette was unemployed and homeless. She was grieving over her mother’s death and suffering in an abusive relationship. She’d left her 15-year job as the branch manager of a bank to be by her mother’s side, only to find herself unable to land another job.

“I was completely broken,” said Tonette. “I’d lost weight. I thought I was dying, but the doctor said it was stress.”

Her aunt suggested that she get serious about candle making, a hobby she’d tried to pursue while caring for her terminally ill mother. “I didn’t want to take my aunt’s advice,” said Tonette. “My motivation died with my mother. But I finally did it to pass the time.”

Today there’s no trace of Tonette’s personal struggles in the charming shop in the Artist’s Village at Grand River and Lahser. The shop is a heaven of delightful scents – from “Silly Rabbit” that smell like Trix cereal, to candles that look like canned peaches, frothy coffee drinks or martinis. Ranging from $2 - $15, her candles are eco-friendly, hand poured and 100 percent soy. Tonette loves to hold workshops for area children. She also carries an array of gifts, hand-crafted jewelry and, of course, Detroit Snob tees!















Tonette is still amazed at how quickly her shop, which just opened October 1, 2011, has become a popular stop for visitors to the Old Redford Theater, Motor City Java House and Sweet Potato Sensations, all surrounding businesses that are making the Artist Village a Detroit destination. It’s a far cry from selling candles at art fairs and bazaars, as she’d been doing part time for nearly 10 years.


Friendship and business over coffee

Tonette had been selling her candles at fairs and in small booths at bazaars, but moving into her own shop wasn’t exactly her own idea. A few years ago she had agreed to participate in an event with the proprietor of Motor City Java House, Alicia Marion. Marion manages the building that houses both Motor City Java House and the Detroit Candle Co.

“I had two black eyes and couldn’t come to the event,” said Tonette, recalling her abusive relationship. “So I made up an excuse. Alicia said to me “I know you don’t know me, but I feel secure enough to say that I know you’re lying to me.’”

Tonette admitted to her troubles, and Alicia became a supporter and friend. To apologize, Tonette made Alicia a candle that looked like a cappuccino. “She called me back and said, ‘Do you think you can manage retail?’” said Tonette.

Maybe Alicia recognized herself in Tonette. She, too, was a single mother who had left an abusive situation. Her job at the Troy Marriott introduced her to the service industry. As a volunteer, she became interested in the Motor City Blight Busters, a group that was transforming the west side. She ended up serving as an executive assistant with the organization for 13 years—and most of that time, she dreamed of opening a quaint little coffee shop in the area.

“I traveled a lot,” said Alicia. “I love bed and breakfasts, I love placed like Ann Arbor, Idlewild, Atlanta and New Orleans – everywhere I went I brought back ideas to Detroit. ”

It took her five years of fundraising—and the support of Motor City Blight Busters, the group that developed the Artists Village-- to be able to open the shop on Angels’ Night 2011. “People said I was crazy to open a shop in the middle of the worst economic times in history,” said Alicia. “They told me just to make it a chicken joint—no one is out buying coffee. But I had a vision.”

When she met Tonette, Alicia immediately recognized a fellow “Queen,” (Alicia calls all the women she meets “Queen.”) She reached out as a friend and business mentor, and now the two run adjoining shops. The doorway between the businesses is always kept open. The cozy, intimate feeling is like a sitcom set, as their customers and neighborhood regulars flow in and out all day.

Both entrepreneurs see themselves as Detroit Snobs.

“I’m not buying into poverty and hopelessness,” said Tonette. “A lot of people who come into these doors say, ‘Wow, this is like a shop in Birmingham, not Detroit!’ That’s why I love Detroit Snob. That’s the attitude behind wanting to see things get better right here in Detroit.”

Alicia agreed. “Detroit Snob doesn’t mean that I think I’m better than anyone else,” she said. “But at the same time, I don’t want to see the negative energy that Detroit gets saddled with. Being a Detroit Snob is simply having an attitude of pride.”

Detroit Candle Co. is located at 17340 Lahser Rd., Detroit, MI

Desiree Cooper will be speaking to the April meeting of Women in Communications at Motor City Java House, 17336 Lahser Rd., Detroit, MI on Tuesday, April 25, 2011 at 7 p.m. Non-members welcome! Register here.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Ciao to a Detroit Snob

I met Michelle Price at a party last summer hosted by a mutual friend. It wasn’t five minutes before we felt like “sisters of another mister.”

It was at that party that I shared with her my vision for “Detroit Snob,” an idea that was just starting to take hold. Michelle, a Detroit area marketing professional who was born in Kansas, loved the idea and immediately started sharing her ideas and expertise. Then she shared her own dream: She was going to move to Italy to go to business school.

I was so impressed. To study abroad – wow! I couldn’t imagine taking a step like that as a middle-aged woman. I can’t even remember my way to work half of the time. How would I manage studying abroad?

It was only after our friendship flowered over the summer that I came to know that Michelle actually had no idea HOW she was going to Italy. She simply claimed that she was going. She had met some friends in Italy years before and had visited twice. The people, culture and cities seemed to call her name—she was supposed to be there. Obedient to her spirit, she set the wheels in motion. My admiration for her grew. It’s scary to dream big and claim it when there’s no obvious way to make your dream come true.

Just months later, Michelle (now an official Detroit Snob) got the news. She’d been accepted to the Universita’ Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (USCS) in Milan. The school is the largest private university in Europe, with more than 42,000 students, and it is the biggest and one of the most distinguished Catholic universities in the world. Michelle is the first American to be accepted into the master's degree program in luxury goods management.

Like most silver linings, the news came with its own dark cloud. How could she afford to go? What would she do with all her possessions? Could she really leave behind her closest friends?

“I got cold feet for a while after I got my acceptance letter,” she said. “But I got over it fast.”

Letting go is sometimes the surest way to receive a blessing. She eventually sold everything she owned and moved in with a friend. Up until the week before she left, she didn’t have her visa. But her faith never wavered. “I didn’t know how this was going to work,” she said, “but I knew it would.”

Days before her flight, it arrived in the mail. On Monday, March 30, Michelle began the Executive Master Luxury Goods Management Program. She’ll be studying every aspect of launching luxury products, including marketing, design, pricing, retail management, advertising, supply chain strategy, and operations.

As we gathered to say “arrivederci,” we all told stories about Michelle’s inspirational vision and drive. There was one common denominator: None of us knew how she was going to do it, but none of us doubted she would.





Monday, March 26, 2012

Hob-Snobbing--Rosemary Linares, Who do you think she is?


(A version of this story first appeared in Between the Lines, 3/22/2012 in issue 2012)

A few minutes with Rosemary Linares and you feel you already know her. She’s a friendly 29-year-old Caucasian woman with a master's degree from New York University, a supportive husband and an adorable stepson.

Not exactly. Rosemary is not Caucasian, she's Latina. And although she's happily married to a man, she's bisexual. 
"I'm used to straddling identities," said Linares, president of Cross Movement Social Justice Consulting, L3C in Ann Arbor. "I identify as Latina because I'm half Cuban, but my heritage is not obvious when you see me. I identify as queer and bi-sexual, but I'm in a heterosexual marriage. I live between identities."

Saying, “You can’t judge a book by its cover” is too easy. Spend one day in Linares’s diversity training and you come away realizing just how much judgment you carry around. For me, the biggest surprise was the degree of my own “heterosexism.” I too often assume that someone has an opposite sex partner. I ask people “What are you doing this weekend?” without ever considering what a difficult question that may be for someone who is closeted. Those are the kinds of things that Linares navigates every day.

"Because of how I look from the outside, I have what’s called ‘heterosexual privilege,’” she said. “I can share in my husband's benefits, I can determine his medical treatment if necessary. I can be accepted in circles as an 'ordinary' wife and mother."

The courage to stand up

Linares, who grew up in Saline near Ann Arbor, decided early on that just because she could slide between identities didn’t mean she should ignore the identities that reduce her access to privilege. (In my African American experience, that was called “passing.”) Even before she came out to her family at age 18, Linares was a vocal ally of the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) community.

In her junior year of high school, she fought for the right to do a presentation about LGBTQ civil rights in her social studies class - a fight that she took all the way to the Superintendent of Saline Area Schools. After winning that battle, she started the first Gay Straight Alliance in her school (the staff sponsor for the alliance was threatened and had her classroom vandalized). Her efforts garnered her the $10,000 national Colin Higgins Youth Courage Award in 2001, awarded to a young person who bravely stands for LGBTQ inclusivity.

After high school, she attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, the bastion of activism and progressive thought. Travel and experiential education is a core value of the curriculum. Using her award money from the Colin Higgins Foundation, Linares went to Miami, where she helped people with immigration and conducted HIV education; to Quito, Ecuador where she worked with children who lived on the streets; to Havana to study; and to Guadalajara, Mexico where she taught English.

After graduation, "the synchronistic unfolding of the universe led me to the Arcus Foundation in New York City, to help the LGBT social justice fund," she said. "I got to see the philanthropic LGBTQ movement nationally and internationally."

Her broad experience has helped her to accept her intersecting identities. "I'm a person of color who has white privilege," said Linares, who serves on the board of Detroit Latin@s. "I'm a bisexual woman with heterosexual privilege. When you have that kind of privilege, it's important to explore your feelings around it. Do you feel guilty or powerful? Having explored my own privilege, I've come to the social justice movement with humility and self-awareness."

Last year, she joined the board of Detroit Latin@s, a community based group formed in 2008 to bring greater influence and visibility to the Latino/a LGBT and straight allied community. One of the issues she constantly tackles is the assumption that’s what’s good for the broader LGBTQ community, is good for the diverse groups within that community.

"Many in the Latino LGBTQ community feel isolated by language," said Linares. "There are issues specific to the Latino community. It's not just about the right to marry when you're in a same-sex relationship with someone who is undocumented."

In many ways, her work with Detroit's Latino community reaches back to her college days when she worked in Miami helping people with their immigration status and providing HIV education.

"The motto for my alma mater Antioch College is 'Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity,'" she said. "For me, fighting for social change is a lifetime commitment.”

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Hobsnobbin' and cash mobbin' for literacy!

Come out to:
Sonnets, Shopping & Champagne
on Thursday, February 23, 5 p.m. - 8 p.m.

at The Peacock Room in the Historic Park Shelton,15 E. Kirby (next to the DIA)

The Peacock Room's Rachel Lutz is donating 10 percent of sales all day on Feb. 23 to benefit InsideOut Literary Arts Project.Free champagne for shoppers!


photography by Lindee Robinson
"I support InsideOut because language and art are such critical parts of a full education. In the face of devastating cuts, they step up to fill a growing void, empowering our children with confidence and a voice,'' said Lutz. "When we invest in InsideOut, our reward is that our students become our teachers.''
Ten dollars from the sale of each Detroit Snob, glam tee-shirt will also go to InsideOut. The organization is racing to meet a February 29th deadline to capture a $25,000 matching grant from Hollywood filmmaker Bob Shaye.

"Detroit Snobs know the value of education, literacy and creativity to the survival of the human spirit,'' says Desiree Cooper, Detroit Snob founder, journalist and long time IO board member. "To give that gift to our young people is the best gift we can give to ourselves."


Dave Lewinski, founder of Detroit Cash Mob is also supporting the event by encouraging members of Detroit Cash Mob to shop at the Peacock Room on the 23rd.

Here are some other great offers during "Sonnets, Shopping & Champagne."

InsideOut founder, Terry Blackhawk, will debut her latest book, "The Light Between," with 60 percent of proceeds benefitting IO.






Famed textile artist Carole Harris will have her scarves availble for sale, with 15 percent going to the youth literary arts program.






Local designer of Je Suis Detroit tees, Toni Powell, will also sell her shirts, with 10 percent going to InsideOut.




Getting there is EASY. No admission fee, and validated parking is available for two hours in the Park Shelton's garage on Woodward Ave.
Here are more items I've bought from the Peacock Room - what fun things will you find?

Can't stop and shop? Donate online --your support will count just the same. Invest in a more creative Detroit--a goal we can all feel snobby about.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Royale Theus: Living to Give

(A version of this story first appeared in Between the Lines,  2/9/2012 in issue 2006)

When he was only 20-years-old, Detroit native Royale Theus discovered he was going to be a father. It wasn't exactly what he had planned for his future.

"I had my son with my best friend," said Theus, who is gay. "Life happens."

For Theus, now 30, life has been a series of curveballs. His parents divorced when he was only two. When he was five, he was sexually abused by a relative. It took him three years to tell his mother.

"It was so hurtful for her," said Theus, the director of programs for the Michigan AIDS Coalition, a Ferndale-based organization that promotes the health and well being of the HIV/AIDS community. "She always told me that it wasn't my fault and that she still loved me."

Theus's father, however, was an abusive alcoholic who was in and out of Theus's life after the divorce.

"When I was a kid, I thought he was a hero - he had a big car, nice clothes and worked at Ford," said Theus. "But he'd only want to come over when he was intoxicated."

By the time Theus turned 18, he was eager to get out into the world and experience life. He worked at FOCUS:Hope and then with the Detroit Health Department doing HIV testing and counseling in a mobile unit. He'd barely established himself when he discovered he was going to be a father.

But instead of throwing him into a tailspin, fatherhood was a wake-up call.

"Having a son saved my life," said Theus, whose son is now 11. "He was my 'Stay Out of Jail' card. I knew there was someone depending on me."


DETROIT LGBT LEADER: ROYALE THEUS from Model D TV on Vimeo.

Gay fatherhood

Taking care of others seems to bring out the best in Theus.

"I was raised by a strong, independent, hardworking woman," he said of his mother, who joined the Army Reserve and earned a nursing degree as a single parent. In 1985, he watched as his mother took care of his grandmother until she died of breast cancer in 1990.

It's his mother's nurturing influence that Theus brings to his relationship with his son.

"I hug him, I kiss him," said Theus, who is fully engaged in his son's life. "I show more emotion and affection than my father showed."

Theus has yet to talk to his son about being gay.
Despite his comfort with his role as a father, he's not so comfortable with his role as a gay father. Theus has yet to broach the topic of his sexuality with his son, a shy kid who is a car fanatic.

"I'm waiting until he's older," said Theus. "He's mentioned that someone called another classmate 'gay.' I asked him what that meant and he didn't know."

But there's a hesitation in Theus's voice, as if he is still coming to terms with his own sexuality. "I am struggling with it," he acknowledged. "The more comfortable that I can be with who I am, the easier it will be for me to talk to my son about it. Being gay is not easy."

There are at least 650,000 same-sex couples in the United States, and one in five of them are raising children, according to Gary Gates, a demographer at the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy. Much less is known about the number of gay or lesbian single parents.

"LGBTQ parents face the issues that other parents don't face," Theus said. "They have to deal with outsiders who do not believe that gays can be parents. And they have to deal with their own children not accepting them because of what other children may say."

There's also guilt associated with "adding another dimension of challenge to your own child's life," said Theus, who graduated from Mumford High School in 1999. "My son needs to know about different sexual orientations so that he can be tolerant. But right now, I'm just dealing with class work and girlfriends. I don't want to put my sexuality on him now."

Answers to life's questions

Sheltered in the apostolic church, Theus never talked to anyone about sexuality growing up--especially not homosexuality.

"Back then, I questioned God, 'Why me?'" said Theus, who did everything for the church from driving the bus, to singing in the choir and cleaning after events. "I was afraid to talk to anyone about the feelings I was having for men. They preached to me that everything I was feeling was wrong."

In high school, he came out to his mother and became an activist. As a member of an African American LGBT health organization, he went to Detroit's Palmer Park to pass out health information. After graduation, he eventually landed a job in the Detroit Health Department's HIV mobile testing unit, bringing healthcare services to soup kitchens, methadone clinics and distressed neighborhoods.

"That was a whole new world for me," he said. "I liked helping people with diverse needs."

By the time he joined the Michigan AIDS Coalition in 2004, the questions he'd asked of God as a young man were finally being answered.

"Whenever I share with people their HIV status and help them go through the process of dealing with the diagnosis -- from the medical regimen, to attending their first doctor's appointments, to providing them food out of my freezer and clothes if they need it -- I understand why I'm here," Theus said. "This is why I had to go through what I had to go through."

By the age of 25, Theus was the program director at the Michigan AIDS Coalition.

"I have to thank Craig Covey who started this organization for giving me a chance to demonstrate leadership," he said. "Whatever they needed, I was efficient and dependable. That's from my mother: No matter what you're doing, always do your best."

Family demands

Now he is living out another lesson he learned watching his mother nurse his grandmother: Honor thy mother and father.

"In 2005, my mother was in a head-on collision when she was driving to church," he said. "She survived, but she was diagnosed with dementia and a serious brain injury."

So in addition to raising a son, he is the sole caretaker of his 62-year-old mother.

A year ago, his father was incarcerated for a violent crime -- at 90 years old. Diagnosed with dementia, his father served time in jail and was released into Theus's custody. Now he is also his dad's legal guardian.

It's a crushing responsibility, but Theus, takes his family demands in stride. "I see this as being normal," said Theus, who is pursuing a bachelor's degree in human services from the University of Phoenix. "This is what I should be doing and I'm blessed to be able to do it. To those who much is given, much is required."