Providing a safe haven

Frances Penn Cleveland's warm, healing spirit offers inspiration and hope to women with HIV and AIDS

Frances Penn Cleveland displays on her desk a framed copy of the words: “We laugh to survive.” She laughs deeply and loudly, often in joy and appreciation of life’s blessings and ironies.

She lives by another motto, too, one not openly displayed: “Everyone deserves a safe place.”

Cleveland is chaplain for the Helena Hatch Special Care Center, where she helps provide a safe haven for women with HIV and AIDS. The center is named after Cleveland’s daughter Helena Hatch, who died in 1994 at age 35 of complications related to AIDS.

HIV and AIDS have struck African-Americans particularly hard. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that roughly 5,000 new HIV infections occurred in the United States in 2001, and 50 percent of newly infected men and 64 percent of newly infected women were African-American.

Helena Hatch Special Care Center health coach Kesha Benzie (left) and chaplain Frances Penn Cleveland stand in front of the stained glass window alongside the Interfaith Chapel at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Cleveland and Benzie spend much of their time offering comfort and counseling to women with HIV and AIDS. — Photo by Bob Boston

In the St. Louis metro area, African-American women represent 78 percent of the reported female AIDS cases, according to the St. Louis Department of Health.

Even though the need for supportive services is apparent, there are few safe places for African-American women with HIV.

Working with Helena on HIV-related volunteer programs and helping her through her illness showed Cleveland the stigma, fear and loneliness that often accompany AIDS. The experience refocused her life on helping women with HIV — a drive that drew her to the University.

A spiritual journey

Cleveland was born in Okolona, Miss., and grew up in the segregated South. Her mother was a college professor who taught elementary education; her father was an entrepreneur who owned several dry-cleaning stores.

Her parents divorced when she was 9 years old, and her father moved to St. Louis. Cleveland lived with her mother and grandmother, who raised her with a love of books and taught her the importance of compassion and helping others.

“‘You cannot live on this earth by yourself,’ my mother told my brother and me,” Cleveland says. ‘Whatever you have came to you by God’s grace, and you can’t keep it all for yourself.'”

Cleveland graduated from Rust College in 1959 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and taught high-school science for several years in Mississippi. She then worked for two years as a social worker in Chicago before moving to St. Louis in 1968 to be near her father.

She worked for 26 years as a social worker for the Missouri Division of Social Services, reviewing prospective cases, visiting client homes to determine assistance eligibility and investigating fraud in the Food Stamp and Aid to Dependent Children programs.

As a child, Cleveland dreamed for a while of being a doctor, then a minister’s wife, never expecting to become a minister herself. She was an active member of the Methodist Church, however, and worked her way up through the ranks until she became a pastor at St. Paul United Methodist Church in St. Charles, Mo., in 1993.

Helena Hatch
Frances Cleveland’s daughter Helena Hatch died in 1994 of complications related to AIDS. The Helena Hatch Special Care Center is named in her honor because of her compassion and dedication to comforting others with HIV and AIDS. — Courtesy photo

Helena was the older of Cleveland’s two daughters, a college graduate who worked as a research analyst at Monsanto Chemical Co. and then taught fifth-grade science at Bishop Healy School in St. Louis. Helena volunteered with the Girl Scouts, and she and her mother volunteered as information and referral specialists for the United Way, helping the needy locate food and other necessities.

Helena’s diagnosis came in 1991 and suddenly cast them among those in need of help. Cleveland turned to close friends and her church for solace.

But when she told them that her daughter had HIV, some responded with a pointed lack of compassion.

“I was shocked when they began speculating about the sexual orientation of those involved, on who was at fault and on the degree of sin, salvation and condemnation associated with HIV and AIDS,” Cleveland says.

She fought back her anger and used her faith to cope with their reactions, and she learned from it.

“They spoke out of ignorance,” Cleveland says. “They didn’t realize what they’d said.

“I’m a 63-year-old African-American woman preacher — racism, sexism, age-ism — for me the ‘isms’ just keep going! I can’t afford to get mad at people; I’d be angry all the time!” she adds as she laughs heartily, rocking back in her chair.

Cleveland and her daughter did find compassion in the gay community, especially through the organizations St. Louis Efforts for AIDS, Blacks Assisting Blacks Against AIDS and Food Outreach. They learned about the disease, and then took training classes to learn how they could help others.

“I must have taken ‘AIDS 101’ a hundred times,” Cleveland says.

Helena refused to allow the virus to defeat her. She fought back by organizing toy and food drives and volunteering whenever and wherever she could.

Whenever possible, Cleveland was there with her daughter.

“We delivered food to a mother with two sons who had HIV. One young man was in bed; he’d given up.

“Helena told him that she had AIDS, too, and he said, ‘You?’ The next week, he was up and around, as if he thought: ‘If she can do this, I can, too.’ That was the kind of reaction she got from people through her activities.”

Cleveland and Helena also volunteered with cooperative programs run by the School of Medicine and the Red Cross at the Storz Medical Multispecialty Clinic next to the MetroLink stop at the Medical Campus.

Helping others heal

Helena died shortly before the new special care center opened. It was named after Helena for her compassion and dedication to comforting others with HIV and AIDS.

Frances Penn Cleveland

Title: Chaplain, Helena Hatch Special Care CenterEducation: B.A. in chemistry, Rust College; master of divinity, Saint Paul School of TheologyMost rewarding aspect of her job: Being available to patients and staffFamily: Husband, Robert A. Cleveland; daughter, Ida Patrice BrisonHobbies: Reading, listening to music
After Helena’s death, Cleveland entered the Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo. Her academic training was followed by a yearlong chaplain internship and residency in 2001 at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and at the Helena Hatch Special Care Center, where she provided counseling and spiritual services to women with HIV.

She began serving the women of Helena Hatch exclusively when her residency ended last year. And she has earned the respect and admiration of her colleagues.

“Frances is terrific at her job,” says Linda M. Mundy, M.D., assistant professor of medicine and medical director for the Helena Hatch Center. “She works closely with our case managers, social workers, mental health experts, nurses, peer educators and patients. She has a true respect for cultural differences between races, and her sense of humor is a gift that is contagious and helps people relax.”

As director of the center’s new Faith in Action Coalition, which trains volunteers from African-American churches to provide home-based services for women who come to the center for care, Cleveland has developed partnerships with more than 15 local congregations.

“Frances really listens to people’s concerns and tries to help them and challenge them,” says David W. Haden, the center’s project manager. “Her background in HIV education and as a volunteer with AIDS organizations, together with her experience as a minister and her knowledge of theology, puts her in a unique position to bridge the HIV community and the church community.”

But even chaplains must take time to relax. She and her husband, Robert, a retired ironworker, are both voracious readers. She enjoys reading novels about African-Americans and mysteries by Sue Grafton and others.

Most of all, she enjoys spending time with her daughter, Ida Patrice Brison, and her two granddaughters, ages 15 and 10, and her grandson, age 5.

Cleveland is excited about working at the University.

“I love my job,” she says. “Washington University is a good place to be. I work with good people, and I love my patients. Most of them have so much potential.”

And it’s her patients that truly benefit from Cleveland’s warm spirit.

“She is a very uplifting person and brings a lot of joy to the center,” says a patient with HIV who has been involved with the center for the past three years. “She encourages me to stay strong and focused.

“Through her experience with her own daughter, Frances has sympathy toward patients, and that alone is felt genuinely. Just knowing that someone can relate to us really means a lot.”

It’s a reciprocal relationship: Cleveland offers hope and inspiration to her patients, and they deepen her spiritual connection to God and humanity.

“Many of my patients come to the center after first being diagnosed feeling down and prepared to die,” she says. “After a few months, they realize they’ve still got life to live. Then they have to regroup and live it. To see that growth is very rewarding.”