Story By: Erika Vidal Holmes
After cleaning their plates of a Thanksgiving feast that included turkey, green beans, stuffing and three kinds of pie, the group of satisfied diners at Francis House rose to their feet to compliment their chef with a standing ovation. Ann Nash, the 67-year-old grandmotherly woman who spent two days preparing this annual meal, acknowledged the thanks with a bashful nod.
“I’ve been cooking all my life,” she said.
She started cooking at Francis House, a Tampa AIDS and HIV outreach center on North Florida Avenue, five years ago after hearing about it at church. She was looking for two things: a unique way to give back to the community and a support system for her disease.
More than 20 years ago, Ann contracted HIV from her husband, John. They had been married for nearly 25 years when she was diagnosed at age 46. John never disclosed how he contracted the virus. Ann was silent about her diagnosis for years, but now she speaks candidly about life with HIV in hopes of educating people and breaking the stigma. Francis House is also a place for her and the people she feeds-people like Tameka McMurray, 34, Steve Mesidor, 21, and Llewellyn Smith, 47, all HIV positive-to speak openly and without judgment.
Founded in 1990 by Sister Anne Dougherty, Francis House has aimed to provide support to the HIV/Aids community through meals, HIV testing, support groups, substance abuse counseling, medical and housing care management and more. The nonprofit offers all of its services free of charge, but clients have the opportunity to help clean up after lunch, volunteer and do other chores to earn “Francis House dollars” to purchase food from the pantry and items from the thrift store. They can earn vouchers by scheduling and keeping appointments with their counselors, attending group sessions and more-the nonprofit was even able to let go of its janitorial service because one client took on all the responsibilities in exchange for Francis House dollars.
Joy Winheim, the nonprofit’s executive director, couldn’t imagine working with any other group of people.
“Once you work with the HIV/Aids population, you don’t want to work with anyone else,” Joy said. Watching their daily struggles and accomplishments has given her a different perspective. “I have had the distinct honor of sitting with someone until the very end,” she said, an experience she describes as “the best worst thing” she has ever been through.
According to the June Florida Division of Disease Control Surveillance Report, Hillsborough County saw a 12 percent increase in the number of reported HIV cases from January to May 2010 compared with the same time last year. The report shows that there are 5,844 people in the county living with HIV or Aids. Francis House receives an average of 40 visitors a day, whether they are coming in for meals, support groups or just to socialize.
Francis House recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, and earlier this year, it was awarded a city grant to purchase a lot next door, where the nonprofit hopes to build an annex within the next few years. Joy hopes to utilize the new space for counseling services and hopefully, to be able to feed more people. For many Francis House regulars, the meals Ann cooks are the only full meals they get each day, and she is glad to be able to give them that. After more than 20 years of living with HIV, Ann is stronger than ever, both spiritually and physically.
“I tell my grandchildren, ‘You’ve seen me take pills all my life, but you’ve never seen me really sick or in the hospital,'” Ann said. “You learn to live with it, like diabetes or anything else. You can have a real life. It’s not the end of the world.”