Photography by Jessica Turner.
Like many millennials, Taler Jefferson usually has her smartphone in one hand and her laptop in the other. She might log on during dinner or in the middle of the night, which matches the odd hours of physicians she assists as a program coordinator at UT Southwestern Medical Center.
“Doctors are still working at two in the morning, and so is my generation,” says the 31-year-old, who gave up her job as a Dallas ISD science teacher to work from home when the pandemic hit. “I can constantly be on top of things. My generation – that’s just the way we move.”
If the Jefferson name sounds familiar, you may know that her family is a kind of royalty in historic Hamilton Park. Her great grandfather, Thomas Jefferson, Sr., was the original owner of the home she now lives in with her mom, Nichole. Her great uncle, Thomas Jefferson, Jr., has been a community leader for decades and was dubbed by former Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings as Mayor of Hamilton Park.
Jefferson went to college in North Carolina, got a master’s degree in Georgia and worked in Virginia before returning to give back to the neighborhood – and the people – who reared her. She formed the Salome Foundation in 2018, and since then the nonprofit has been investing in the community. The name came to her during a sermon at her uncle’s church about the biblical Salome, who brought spices to anoint the body of Jesus.
“I had never heard God speak to me, but in that moment his voice was clear,” recalls Jefferson. She told her uncle – and everyone at the picnic after church – about her plan to aid the people of Hamilton Park and North Dallas. “I was on fire. I recruited board members and applied for nonprofit status, and it grew from there.”
The foundation partnered with Hamilton Park Pacesetter Magnet to serve elementary students, then worked with the Public Improvement District to host Sundays in the Park, an outdoor community concert series. They hosted neighborhood cleanup days and gave a college scholarship to high school seniors.
“We were really building momentum,” she says. “Then COVID hit.”
Salome provided hundreds of meals per week to families hit hard.
“It made a difference. People came up crying, saying they didn’t know how they were going to feed their families. One lady came with 11 kids, but all we had left was milk. She was so grateful.”
When she began getting calls from people in cities an hour away, Jefferson realized the enormity of the need.
“It was rewarding to know people had heard of what we were doing, but it felt like I had the world on my shoulder. One week, our delivery driver got lost, and that upset me. These people are depending on me. I want to deliver.”
Jefferson has learned plenty of lessons along the way, but one has become her mantra.
“I can’t do it myself,” she says. “I have to be strategic. I have to ask for help.”
One of her biggest challenges, and the challenge of other “next generation leaders” bringing fresh ideas to the community where they grew up, is the reluctance of the “old guard” to relinquish the reins. Basketball star Terrell Harris, artist Gerald Leavell, youth football coach Tevar Watson, Thomas Jefferson IV, and others are awash in ideas.
“A lot of things are in the planning stages right now, but the older generation still thinks we’re still 12 years old. We have ideas and resources, and once the new Willie B. Johnson Recreation Center opens, we’ll be killing it.”
The new recreation center is expected to open in September, with a multi-use center, technology lab, indoor basketball court, classrooms and kitchen. The next generation leaders envision basketball camps, football camps, cheerleading camps, STEM lessons, music lessons and other educational and fun opportunities for children and families.
“Hamilton Park made me who I am,” says Jefferson. “I could do my job from anywhere, but I want to give back. My family raised me, but Hamilton Park also raised me. We call it ‘The Island,’ because it really is like an island oasis.”