Now, therefore, I Sandra W. Freedman, by virtue of the authority vested in me as Mayor of the City of Tampa, Florida, do hereby proclaim the month of April as "FRANCIS HOUSE MONTH" in the city of Tampa, Florida, and urge all citizens to join me in honoring the achievements of Sister Anne and all who are involved in providing assistance and unconditional love for all people.
With these words, Tampa's Mayor Freedman closed her proclamation honoring Sr. Anne Dougherty, OSF, MS, on the fifth anniversary of the founding by Sr. Anne of Francis House. A member of the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany and Secretary of the Board of Directors of AIDS National Interfaith Network, Anne Dougherty and Francis House were also recognized by the 7 member Board of Commissioners of Hillsborough County, who had declared March as "Francis House Month" in Hillsborough County.
In 1989 a group of HIV positive men approached Sr. Anne to begin a spiritual support group for them because they were being rejected by local clergy. So she did -- at St. Joseph's hospital. As both proclamations put it, Sr. Anne began "ministering to a group of young men literally exiled from their community and alienated from families, churches, and society because they were infected with the HIV virus." The men told Sr. Anne that they needed something during the day, a safe place, in which physical, emotional and spiritual needs could be met through drug counseling, art projects, lunch programs, exercise, massage therapy and retreats. After consulting with 20 people in the non-profit community, Francis House opened as an interfaith day center at St. Paul Lutheran Church.
10 months later, a 5,000 square foot building was donated to Francis House. Services expanded to five days a week, 9 to 5 every day, including a respite care program for children up to five years of age, and a school program including counseling for both parents and children. Francis House Adolescent Coordinator Dee Borton had been working with a guidance counselor from a local public high school in constructing a 6-week program for young people considered students at "high risk" of dropping out. Of the topics to be discussed with these young people, HIV and AIDS was included. Borton approached Eric Van Dam, a Francis House volunteer and a person living with AIDS, to be part of the program. In a recent interview, Van Dam related,
"I knew all the basic information about HIV. My mother was a nurse, so I was exposed to it. But I didn't pay attention as I could have because I didn't care that much. Not that I thought it wouldn't happen to me, but I just didn't care. If I had cared about myself more, I would have taken care of myself more. I'll be 25 in September."
This personal experience led Van Dam to a conclusion about HIV prevention: problems with self-esteem and communication are critical to effectively addressing HIV prevention.
"We did alot of role playing in the program," he says. "We talked alot about what they were doing in and out of school, why they were important, how they impacted other people. Before one session, we talked about which people we would like to have dinner with and why, who our heroes are. And we looked at the 'down side' of that -- how heroes can let us down, but we always have ourselves. We are the only people that we can truly count on."
Van Dam reported that one of the young men in the group, who had admitted being promiscuous, went away from the program
"not with a scared feeling, but with a neat opinion of why it is important to take care of himself and protect himself from HIV. He was willing to take on the role of a leader in the school after that. He talked to his friend about it, and how the group needed to change its behavior."
Van Dam and others from Francis House often do speaker presentations in schools in the Tampa area:
"High schools seem to present the 'bare facts' -- the kids know the difference between 'safe' and 'unsafe.' But they don't seem to get -- and this is really needed -- the motivational tool to apply that information, the value of each human person. I look at my own school experience: guidance counselors avoided the subject. I got the information by about 1985 or 1986, included in with all the other STD information in a Life Management Class. We probably spent about 15 minutes on the entire subject. There was little information in college too. Schools call and ask for people who are HIV+ to speak, but they also ask that the presentation include prevention. So one person gives the prevention message, and the HIV+ person reinforces that message. When I do these presentations, I always include how Francis House has changed my life so much."
Van Dam reports that his school presentations often lead to "drop in visits" to Francis House by Tampa young people.
"From my presentations, they get information, but they also hear about Francis House, and it gives them a place to go if there is a crisis. They need that emotional component to follow through on the evidence. They need to know that emotional health leads to physical health."
On Thursday, March 30, 1995, Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton, Lutheran Bishop Lavern Franzen, Episcopal Bishop Roger S. Harris, and Sr. Mary Arghittu, General Minister of the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, joined with the Hillsborough County Commissioners, the Mayor and people of Tampa, to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Francis House and to honor its founder, Sr. Anne Dougherty.
This article appeared in the May/June 1995 Issue of the AIDS National Interfaith Newsletter, "INTERaction."