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Loretta Jones, who fought for better healthcare in L.A.'s inner city, dies at 77

Loretta Jones, who fought for better healthcare in L.A.'s inner city, dies at 77
Loretta Jones in 2017 was presented with the UCLA Medal, the university's highest honor. (UCLA)

For two years, weekend mornings for Loretta Jones would begin with a drive from her Wilshire district home to Crenshaw to pick up a woman who needed to go to Hawthorne for methadone treatment.

The woman had shown up homeless and on heroin outside the office of Healthy African American Families, the nonprofit Jones founded in 1992 to advocate for healthcare equity.

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“She just needed someone to reach out,” said Jones’ daughter, Felica Jones. “That’s exactly what she got.”

Loretta Jones got the woman treatment and an apartment.

“She lived a good life in her own apartment until she passed away,” Felica Jones said.

That was typical of Loretta Jones, her daughter said.

“My mother has always opened her door to every person that needed love and care and guidance.”

A prolific foster-care mom whose 1979 move from Massachusetts to Los Angeles led to a collaboration with UCLA researchers that helped bridge the gap between community care and academia, Jones died Nov. 22 from esophageal cancer.

Since 2011, Jones served as associate director of the UCLA Clinical and Translational Science Institute, a research group focused on combining laboratory science with clinical and community experience to shape practical medical interventions “that improve the health of individuals and the public.”

Co-author of more than 80 peer-reviewed articles, Jones is most noted for her 2009 collaboration with UCLA professor Kenneth Wells pioneering a model for what is called community-partnered participatory research.

“In many underserved communities, ‘research’ is a loaded word that sets expectations of being examined or exploited,” begins the posting of the article in the Journal of the American Medical Assn.

“Research, whether it intends to or not, may disadvantage groups by highlighting problems rather than assets” and “become a symbol of distance between community reality and the ‘ivory tower,’ where few mechanisms exist to facilitate community access to knowledge.”

Community-partnered participatory research called for transparency, accountability and equal power-sharing between academics and communities, a memorial on the UCLA website said. Jones’ decades of activism emphasized the community’s shared responsibility to ensure that healthcare is universally accessible.

“Everyone deserves the right to live, everyone deserves good healthcare and we are all responsible for making it happen,” the article quoted her as saying.

A native of Tewksbury, Mass., Jones spent 10 years in foster care as child and became a foster parent of more than 20 children.

“Because of her own experience she always wanted to make sure children had a home and were loved,” Felica Jones said. “We had a seven-bedroom house and every room was full.”

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After the move to Los Angeles, Loretta Jones lavished Christmas gifts, Easter outfits and baby cribs on anyone in need who came to her attention, her daughter said.

Jones received her bachelor of arts in psychology in 1963 and master’s degree in criminal justice in 1972, both from Northeastern University in Boston. She was also awarded two honorary doctorates, including one from Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science. Jones had been a community faculty member at the historically black university in Willowbrook since 2010.

Jones founded Healthy African American Families in 1992 to work with pregnant women to improve preterm health, then expanded to other issues including diabetes, depression and environmental justice, her daughter said.

Now called Healthy African American Families, Phase II, the group engages universities, think tanks and community members to address healthcare disparities. Its mission, according to its website, is “to improve the health outcomes of the African American, Latino and Korean communities in Los Angeles County by enhancing the quality of care and advancing social progress through education, training, and collaborative partnering with community, academia, researchers and government.”

Jones’ daughter said her activities brought her to the attention of UCLA researchers who were trying to gain community access.

From 1999 to 2009, Jones was on the community advisory board of the UCLA School of Nursing’s Center for Vulnerable Populations Research.

In 2017, Jones was awarded the UCLA Medal, the university’s highest honor.

“By addressing health disparities and promoting health equity — insisting that good health should be a right for all, not just a privilege for the lucky few — she has raised the public profile of healthcare access as a true social justice issue,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said in presenting the medal.

A notice posted on Healthy African American Families’ website recalled Jones in a more personal light: “commonly known as Ms. Loretta and affectionately known as ‘Nanie.’

“Dr. Jones was a mother, mentor, and miracle for many,” it said. “Her commitment to social justice, community activation, and true equity made her a well-respected gatekeeper in South Los Angeles and beyond. Her impact can be felt across this country and the world.”

Besides her daughter, Felica Jones, she is survived by three grandchildren.

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