[Note: It is with great sadness that we report that Jake Tanner passed away April 12, 2021.]
When asked his name, Jake Tanner says laughingly, “Some call me Mr. Jake, Jakers, or The Jakers, my actual nickname is Mr. The Jakers. It’s absurd, but that's kinda the point! My best friend named me because ‘The Jakers’ wasn't pompous enough.”
Nothing could be further from the truth; there is nothing pompous about Jake Tanner! Mr. Jake serves as co-captain of Team Friendly Memphis, a volunteer-based outreach whose goal is to bring an end to HIV stigma while sharing the philosophy that we are all equal, regardless of our HIV status and equally important, he shares the message LOVE IS LOVE.
Jake has lived with HIV for more than 30 years. He was on the front line back in the 80's and remains so today. His diligence and perseverance to educate folks about HIV / AIDS from a personal and professional perspective made him a hardcore activist. When asked about his journey, he replied, “I went for many years with a little involvement in the movement but, when I moved to Memphis and connected with FFL, that old-school spark of ‘kicking ass and taking names’ ignited and it has grown to burn ever brighter. I feel that you accomplish the most when you are prepared to roll your sleeves up, get down, and get your hands dirty. I relate to boots-on-the-ground philosophy; take work where it is needed rather than wait for it to come to you. By the time someone seeks you out, their needs may be beyond help. In my experience I have found it is far easier to reach people where they are comfortable and less afraid to open up and speak out.”
Jake moved from Arkansas to Tennessee in late 2014. Memphis friends connected him with Friends For Life encouraging him to enter our program. He recalled, “I had been extremely non-compliant in my HIV care for many years but, with help and care from FFL and Adult Special Care, I immediately saw results and began taking my health seriously."
Once his health was under control, he said he went about life as usual, “For months in early-2015, I didn't think about returning to FFL for assistance until a friend who volunteered there told me about the Nancy Fletcher Food Pantry. I am a bit stubborn and prideful about handouts so I said I would only accept food distributions if I could pay it back so, I offered to volunteer.”
Jake’s offer was accepted, and he began volunteering in the Food Pantry 30 - 40 hours a week. His dedication became apparent and he was offered a paid position, working with FFL until May 2016 as Nutritional Services Assistant alongside Joey Brown in the Food Pantry as well as coordinating Feast For Friends, FFL’s twice-monthly congregate meal program offering clients hot, nutritious meals in a setting that encourages fellowship and friendship. Jake recalled, “Without hesitation, I accepted and graduated from volunteer to staff at FFL. Being an actual member of the staff / family was incredibly rewarding and I greatly regret to this day that I ever resigned.”
In early 2019, Jake received training as a Tennessee state-certified HIV tester/counselor- the same year Focus Magazine named him their Visionary of the Year. From 2018-19 he served at Planned Parenthood as a coordinator for the Free Condoms Memphis Project delivering condoms and supplies throughout Shelby County to areas highly impacted by HIV. Jake made sure condoms were available in LGBTQ and LGBTQ - friendly bars and he always had a supply available to anyone expressing need.
This pandemic has been especially rough on Jake. As everything was shutting down in March, he lost his job, and received a diagnosis of aggressive bladder cancer. The treatment plan requires complete removal of his bladder and prostate with extensive reconstruction and a lengthy recovery in a rehabilitation center. His surgery is scheduled for Monday, May 18th. Because of the pandemic, visitors are not allowed during surgery or rehabilitation.
“I have lived out the last six plus weeks pretty much alone with my thoughts," Jake said. "The quiet and solitude has been extremely difficult, but I have done my best to remain optimistic, not to say I haven't tripped a few times along the way."
When asked if he thinks life will change because of the pandemic he replied, “One thing I learned right away is that Memphis is a city of fighters and survivors. Things will most certainly be different; some changes will be painful, but undoubtedly we will persevere. As for how they will change personally, I remain optimistic and positive! I am determined to return to my much-loved advocacy work once my recovery is complete and the shutdown is lifted. There is so much more for me to do in this community, I am ready to pick up where I left off. I know I will far exceed anyone’s expectations, including my own.”
When asked where his strength comes from Mr. Jake said, “My strength grew exponentially when I received my cancer diagnosis. I have always been strong, but cancer was a sudden eye-opener! I have so much more to accomplish advocating for the HIV community. I am determined to beat cancer, and I can’t wait to get back out and make myself useful again. So much is happening that gives me strength. I have a great will to fight and I know I will come out better than ever. Fighting and winning the cancer battle with HIV definitely gives me even more to live up to; I love being challenged. I am already experiencing the greatest blessing within this cancer curse. The diagnosis during this unprecedented pandemic has giving me a chance to reboot and correct past mistakes. I am thankful that others are using this time to show their love now rather than waiting until I'm dead and gone. I am truly a fortunate man.”
As a testament to how beloved he is in our community, there are two fundraisers benefiting Jake on Friday, May 15th: Dru's Bar will be raising funds all evening to go directly to Jake's Venmo account, while the Pumping Station will offer $2 tacos (available to go), and a $50 gift card to The Doghouzz to auction, plus a few other surprises from 5:30pm -11:30pm. Imagene Azengraber is also making pies for both Dru's Bar and The Pump to auction. All donations will help with Jake's expenses during his hospital stay and recovery. A pressing issue is care for his fur babies, but especially for pup Elly who requires boarding. His sweet but mischievous kitties have their favorite uncle to care for them, but uncle cannot go several times a day to care for Elly. Jake has stepped up for years to help the community. Now, we get a chance to step up too! Please make a direct donation at his Venmo app @Jake-Tanner1 and join the party at these links!
We are all in this together to support each other. Jake says he’s a bit of a dinosaur with only FB social media presence, so find him there, help if you can, and send him lots of love and encouragement during his surgery and recovery.
FB - Jake Tanner - Team Friendly Memphis
Pumping Station fundraiser info: https://www.facebook.com/events/710639606432115/
To make a direct donation to Jake, you can Venmo him: @Jake-Tanner1
*If you ask, Mr. Jake will share his cat's Facebook page, one baby has a bit of a cattitude