Jeannette and Danny Simmons whip up AssistHers’ ‘Decadent Dessert . . . and More.’ And more. . .
by Nancy Ford • Photo by Dalton DeHart
It’s not the least bit unusual for lesbians, when they see a need, to lend a friendly hand to a sister. It is a bit more unusual when a heterosexual couple finds similar inspiration.
Unusual, but not unheard of. Meet Jeanette and Danny Simmons.
In 2009, following the example of their good friend and co-worker Lavita Marks, the young couple joined AssistHers, Houston’s much-lauded nonprofit organization that helps lesbians with chronic illnesses lead more normal lives.
Three years later, Jeanette finds herself serving as the chair for AssistHers’ Decadent Dessert and More.
Scheduled Sunday, October 7, beginning at 4 p.m., the annual dance party and celebration gathers a sumptuous sampling from some of Houston’s finest restaurants and philanthropic caterers.
“We’ve got some new restaurants and some new tastes, in addition to our restaurants that have been past supporters,” Jeanette says.
“Decadent Dessert is great fun, great entertainment, and great food,” Danny, Jeanette’s husband, adds. “The entertainment will be fabulous, and it’s just a great group of people to spend time with on a Sunday afternoon.”
As in past years, Decadent Dessert offers a massive basket raffle that features an iPad basket, golf baskets, outdoor baskets, and more.
“One year, Jeanette won a basket with several bottles of wine in it. Everyone we knew got a bottle of wine for Christmas that year!” Danny says.
“People come and love the event because of what the event is,” Jeanette adds. “They love the restaurants, and they love the food. It’s going to be a big party!”
Jacinta, a popular dance-club diva based in Australia, provides entertainment for the party that is not only traditionally one of LGBT Houston’s most anticipated social events, but is also AssistHers’ primary fundraiser. “And Decadent Dessert is one of the few activities or benefits where 100 percent of the money our guests give goes to our clients,” Danny says.
Unquestionably one of the most butch-looking AssistHers members, Danny acts as vice president of public relations for AssistHers, as well as chair of the group’s Tool Team.
“We go into clients’ homes and look for safety issues of concern,” he says. “For example, if a lady is having problems with her equilibrium, we go in and install handrails in her shower or in her bathroom areas. We’ll fix any floor tile or anything that’s a tripping hazard. We’ll install handrails along wheelchair ramps—things like that. The most common thing we do is look for those safety items and keep them out of harm’s way—any little thing that can improve their lives.
“The biggest thing is to just make their lives better any way we can.”
Once, before embarking on a Tool Team task, the Simmonses stopped at Home Depot for supplies.
“One of the employees asked what we were building,” Jeanette recalls. “We said we were AssistHers volunteers and showed him our T-shirts, and told him we were going to build a wheelchair ramp.
“The guy said that was the best thing he’d heard in a year!” Jeanette says with a laugh. “It just makes you feel good, you know?”
Danny crystallizes his symbiotic relationship with AssistHers in one simple word: Family.
“I came to AssistHers to help people in need who, I felt, needed it,” he explains. “I work in these big industries where maybe they’ll give you a barbeque pit [to do volunteer work or donate to charities]. But maybe about 50 percent of that [money] goes to the person who actually needs help. I wanted to give without recognition, and give of my physical time and myself.
“Then all of the sudden,” he continues, “these AH clients and volunteers became my family, as well as the other people not even associated with AssistHers who are out in the community.
“Number Two is, my family,” Danny says, referring to his own three children. “I’m trying to raise kids to be willing to help people in need, regardless of their situation or their ideology, in a society that has social prejudices. For me, I want my children to be raised in an atmosphere where they see a dad who is willing to give of himself and loves everyone, regardless of difference.”
The Simmons’ nine-year-old twin sons and 12-year-old daughter sometimes accompany their parents on Tool Team visits. “They’ll sit with the ladies while I work installing the wheelchair ramps or whatever. They’ve been a lot of help. And I don’t want them to be raised ignorant!”
“When we walk away from building a wheelchair ramp for one of our clients so she can actually leave her home, and feel safe leaving, there’s just such a good feeling that you have that you did something right,” Jeanette says. “It’s about the good will.”
“That’s the type of feedback we hear all the time here at AssistHers,” says Marks, the group’s president. “Our volunteers all talk about the good feeling they ‘get back’ from helping their clients with even the smallest tasks like walking their dog or doing a load of laundry.”
Founded as an all-volunteer organization in 1996, AssistHers provides nonmedical in-home support and care to lesbians with illnesses such as cancer, fibromyalgia, HIV/AIDS, and multiple sclerosis. Volunteers work together to provide transportation and care to help clients remain in their own homes.
AssistHers currently has 109 active volunteers who serve 30 clients in pairs or in teams, helping lesbians in the greater Houston area who are both chronically and temporarily ill. “We’ve grown so much in the last couple of years. I think that speaks to how vital AssistHers’ mission is. Women need us, now more than ever.”
AssistHers’ clients typically suffer from a wide range of autoimmune diseases, brain and spinal cord injury, fibromyalgia, cancer, hepatitis, stroke, and other debilitating illnesses.
One of Jeannette’s AssistHers “Katy Crew” clients is a lesbian in her 40s who is afflicted with polio.
“She can’t speak on her own, and she’s not able to drive,” Jeanette says. “When her sister can’t take her to medical appointments, an AssistHers volunteer will pick her up. If an AssistHers volunteer can’t take her, we provide the taxi vouchers to help her.”
Jeanette says she also was initially attracted to AssistHers because it is a relatively small group. “We wanted to help a smaller group that doesn’t get support from all these corporate businesses—like more of a grassroots thing where you can actually see your work coming to fruition. It’s nice seeing it grow.”
What: Decadent Dessert and More
When: October 7, 4–8 p.m.
Where: South Beach, 810 Pacific Street
Tickets: $20 • assisthers.org
Want to Assist AssistHers?
Rather than provide medical assistance, AssistHers’ care teams provide emotional support, meal delivery, pet care, errand running, and transportation for medical and social-service appointments. Volunteers are trained and supervised on a monthly basis by credentialed volunteer health workers, to ensure success for AssistHers’ clients and the volunteers alike.
AssistHers has also developed programs for those needs, like providing taxi vouchers for medical appointments when clients are unable to provide for their own transportation.
Volunteers are asked to set aside eight hours a month for AssistHers-related activities, with four hours dedicated to client care or committee work. The other four hours are spent at AssistHers’ Second Saturday meetings, when members gather to have breakfast and meet with individual teams or committees to discuss strategies to help clients.
Going beyond its formal mission to assist their clients, AssistHers also makes a pledge to its volunteers: “We promise to respect your time and your talents. We promise you are going to do work that matters. We promise that you are going to make a difference.”
For more information: assisthers.org.