Sheryl Lee Ralph on the Inspiration Behind Her AIDS Activism: 'Somebody's Got to do Something'

The Abbott Elementary star, who features in our Women Changing the World issue, tells PEOPLE what motivated her to create The D.I.V.A. Foundation.

Sheryl Lee Ralph
Photo: David Livingston/Getty

Sheryl Lee Ralph is revealing the heartbreaking experiences that compelled her to start raising money and awareness for people living with HIV and AIDS.

"I have always felt that health and wellbeing are of the utmost importance," the Abbott Elementary star tells PEOPLE. "And when I saw my friends literally dropping dead during that last pandemic (the last virus was HIV), the fact that people didn't want to help, didn't want to do anything, ignored it like their lives didn't matter, I said, 'Somebody's got to do something.'"

For Ralph, 66, doing "something" meant launching her annual DIVAS Simply Singing! benefit concert and The D.I.V.A. [Divinely Inspired Victoriously Aware] Foundation, a nonprofit, in 1990. But the seeds for both were sown during the decade before, when AIDS ravaged through the theater community.

Ralph, who was living in New York in the 1980s, says, "I was shocked by what life could look like from winter to spring. There were men in my neighborhood that cheered me on as [a star of the Broadway show] Dreamgirls. And by spring, they were a bag of bones; they were skeletons, or they were dead."

Etched into her memory is seeing a young Black patient in Harlem Hospital who "looked like his skin was shedding." "He was pushed in the corner by himself and there was a sign that said, 'Do not touch,'" Ralph remembers. The Emmy-winner hugged him instead.

It was experiences like that one that were in her mind when she hosted her first DIVAS Simply Singing! Raising Health Awareness fundraising event in Los Angeles in 1990. Ralph can still remember the talented friends who were featured in the sold-out show. They included dancer Debbie Allen and The Supremes legend Mary Wilson.

Although the event was a success, Ralph says she had to "nickel and dime, and put it together" herself. Back then, and in the intervening years, many tried to dissuade her from trying to raise HIV/AIDS awareness.

She says, "People told me I was stupid. [They said] 'You spend too much time with those people. It's a waste of your time. People aren't going to love the fact that you want to shine the light on their struggle.'"

But Ralph has defied the naysayers. To date The D.I.V.A. Foundation has raised over $3 million to raise awareness and support for organizations, especially those that provide much needed services to members of the LGBTQ+ community, women, children, and people of color.

Projects that have benefitted from Ralph's nonprofit include the Black AIDS Institute, the Women Alive Coalition and Project Angel Food, which delivers free meals to Los Angeles residents living with life threatening illnesses.

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Last year Ralph was honored for her three decades of activism at the Elizabeth Taylor Ball to End AIDS in Los Angeles. Looking back at the work that she has done and what she continues to do, the actress says, "It has been hard at times, very hard. Especially when you're just ignored." But, ever positive, one of her guiding lights is always "if you can reach one person, that is everything."

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