Gemencina Reed, founding Attic board member, 79

Gemencina Reed, one of The Attic Youth Center’s earliest supporters, died Jan. 9 of organ failure. She was 79.

Reed, an LGBT ally, was one of the founding board members of the LGBT youth agency during its inception in the mid-1990s and served on the board until 2006.

Carrie Jacobs, executive director of The Attic, said she first met Reed during college when she worked as an intern at the Philadelphia Psychiatric Center, where Reed was an employee.

Jacobs said she remained close with Reed and, after she decided to launch The Attic from what started as an experimental project during her doctoral work, she enlisted Reed’s help.

“She was a great ally. She wanted to support youth, and she wanted to support me,” Jacobs said. “She used to say at board meetings all the time, ‘I knew Carrie when The Attic was just a glimmer in her eye.’”

Reed’s longtime friend Victor Friesen said her background was a perfect match for The Attic.

“She was asked to be part of The Attic when it was just starting up because they really needed somebody with strong community support and the smarts to help them along with it, and Gemmy had both of those things,” Friesen said.

Reed was a native of West Philadelphia, and Friesen noted that she lived in the house in which she grew up at 42nd Street and Lancaster Avenue until the time of her death, something her friends continually pressured her about.

“It was a pretty impoverished area, but she never wanted to leave it. We used to all tell her that that house was going to be the death of her, and there was going to be a fire or gas explosion or something, but it never happened. She was right and we were all wrong,” Friesen said. “That was where her mother and father raised her and where she married and had her own son, and I think that place just grounded and centered her. It was her foundation, and she didn’t want to leave it.”

Friesen said it was that “extreme stubbornness” and strength of character that pulled Reed through several struggles that befell her family.

At age 30, she was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome and was paralyzed for more than a year, although she eventually regained most movement.

“Most people who get that disease end up in a wheelchair and eventually often get pneumonia or infections and that’s the end, but Gemmy just wouldn’t put up with that. She just wouldn’t accept that,” Friesen said. “She just had this fierce determination about her.”

Reed also witnessed the deaths of her husband, Charlie, and her only son, Skipper, who was in his 20s when he succumbed to a lifelong heart condition.

“Skipper was always on borrowed time and she never knew when he was going to go, but that was one of the hardest blows she was ever dealt when he died,” Friesen said.

He added that Reed was determined to overcome such hardships.

“She was so courageous. She fought back from Guillain-Barré, her husband died, her son died, but she never let it stop her. She never faltered,” Friesen said. “She kept going with what she believed in and that was helping others. It was an ordeal for her just to get up in the morning and put clothes on and get out the door, but she was one of the most dedicated workers in the field. She was a constant.”

Friesen said Reed, who attained her bachelor’s degree from the Family Institute of Philadelphia and her master’s from Antioch University, began her community work in the early ’70s as a community liaison for a drug-treatment facility in West Philadelphia, a position that allowed her to tap into her unwavering willfulness.

“She went out and just browbeat community members into letting her have programs there and looking for support,” Friesen said. “She was relentless because it was something she believed in.”

Reed continued to work as an advocate and a case manager for various drug- and substance-abuse facilities in the city for the next two decades, arriving in the clinical department of the city’s Community Behavioral Health in 1996. Most recently, she served as a medication assistant-treatment liaison at CBH, a position she held until this past October, when her failing health prevented her from working.

Jacobs said The Attic will remember Reed for her “warmth and incredibly giving and caring nature.”

“She had such a huge personality and, whether she knew it or not, she was so funny,” Jacobs said. “She was a great supporter and a tremendous advocate.”

Friesen said that while Reed might not have been considered a typical Attic supporter, her work on behalf of the agency was invaluable.

“She was fearless. If she knew somebody had money, she’d go after them and try and cajole or wheedle money out of them for a certain project or program. I think she did more to raise money for The Attic than just about any other person on the board, and she was probably the least likely person to have done that. Just looking at her, she was just this really short, stout woman who would have been considered just a neighborhood oddity unless you knew her. She was a remarkable woman.”

About 300 people attended a funeral for Reed on Jan. 16. Memorial contributions can be made in Reed’s name to The Attic Youth Center, 255 S. 16th St., Philadelphia, PA 19102.

Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].