Opal Jones works to house St. Louisans with HIV/AIDS
Opal Jones is a woman pulled in many directions. Since becoming the president and CEO of DOORWAYS in 2012, she hasn’t had two workdays that played out quite the same way. Any given morning, she could be focused on fundraising for the St. Louis-based HIV/AIDS housing and support services organization only to be interrupted suddenly by a number of more pressing administrative matters.
Five years into the top leadership role, the University of Missouri–St. Louis alumna embraces the uncertainty of her daily responsibilities by channeling the enduring spirit of her clients, support of colleagues and the business acumen she acquired at UMSL.
“It’s very interesting work that’s always evolving,” says Jones, who received a BSBA in management in 2000 and an MBA in August. “I’ve also enjoyed the complexity. I love to have my mind challenged and to be a problem solver, which you have to be in a nonprofit environment.”
There are nearly 6,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in the St. Louis area, many of whom face financial, physical and emotional obstacles. In 2016, Jones and her DOORWAYS team served 1,700 clients as well as 1,240 family members through comprehensive housing programs ranging from rental and utility assistance to 24-hour care. The nonprofit organization is also focused on providing holistic programs that address generational poverty, mental health and substance abuse.
DOORWAYS is the only organization of its kind in the region, so Jones finds her work critical to improving the quality of life and health outcomes for Missourians and Illinoisans impacted by the disease as well as preventing further spread.
Having previously served as director of DOORWAYS’ residential programs, Jones misses the daily visits to properties spread across the city. However, she is still very much exposed to the distressing realities of HIV/AIDS from her desk in the Central West End.
Directly above the organization’s administrative office is the Cooper House, which offers 36 private rooms with baths, 24-hour protective oversight and nursing care, dining services and recreational areas to DOORWAYS clients, many of whom are transitioning out of homelessness.
“I’ve seen grown men walk in our doors 6 feet tall and 80-something pounds in a dire situation,” Jones says. “Today, they’re here looking as healthy as you or me. When you witness lives transform in that way and watch residents re-engage with their families – that’s a big deal. To see those individuals thrive, despite their circumstances, is the fulfilling part of what we do.”
She adds that many clients and children impacted by the organization’s mission have gone on to pursue higher education – an opportunity which wasn’t a certainty in her own life.
“My education opened a lot of doors for me,” Jones says. “I was a child who really didn’t understand anything about higher education and didn’t come from a highly educated family, but I knew I needed to go to college to have options. I’m glad UMSL is there to meet people’s needs by meeting them where they are – similar to how we are with our client population.”
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