Bethesda…”A Healing Place”

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Bethesda House–the Army’s ministry to AIDS families–identified as the West’s most outstanding Social Service program for 1999


PLAYTIME–Program Director Julie Lewis takes a few moments to join the fun and games-playing in one of the resident’s rooms.

by Beverly Ventriss – 

Open since 1992, Bethesda House in downtown Los Angeles is the Army’s first residential AIDS facility in the United States designed to permit homeless families to stay together throughout the course of the disease.

Eight years later, it remains the largest program of its kind in California.

“There is no greater example of compassionate ministry than that which takes place day in and day out at Bethesda House,” said Lt. Colonel Alfred R. Van Cleef, divisional commander. “Bethesda is proof that the power of Christ’s love, working through people, can change people and their situations.”

The name, “Bethesda,” chosen because it means “healing pool,” aptly describes the nature and vision of the program. Over the years the program has broadened to include individuals while continuing to provide a broad spectrum of support services to improve a resident’s health, and to assist them in overcoming the problems that contributed to their homelessness. The exciting arrival the past few years of new medicines to battle the AIDS virus –protease inhibitors–means the goal of independent living is now possible for most residents.

In fact, the unique ability of Bethesda House to effectively deal with issues of HIV/AIDS has resulted in 50 families moving from the program to independent living in the past two years. Not one family or individual moved into a hospice. More than 20 alumni families–100 adults and children–have access to monthly support groups held at Bethesda House.

“Bethesda House is a shining example of being present with people in need in the most difficult and trying of crisis,” said Territorial Social Services Secretary Gordon Bingham. “Their ministry reflects the best of Army tradition.”

“I really believe God can change lives,” said Anne Calvo, executive director of Bethesda House, in talking about the transformation of the lives of residents at Bethesda where there is no minimum or maximum stay. The primary goal of the program is to provide a period of regeneration. To equip residents with enough educational, medical and emotional support to prepare for a successful transition back into a wider community. “We try to treat the family holistically,” said Calvo. “To do that, we try to provide a space where people can carve out some stability in their lives. With stability comes health, and with health, survival.”

To accomplish this, Bethesda House staff provides 24-hour supervision. Comprehensive programming provides important support to parents and children, individually, as well as in a family unit. Positive interaction between parent-child is a priority. Children at Bethesda face overwhelming disadvantages such as homelessness, HIV/AIDS, death of family members, family substance abuse history, slow developmental learning skills and health problems. The licensed 50-bed facility has an average of 20-25 children staying at the residence at any one time.

Norma Ramirez, 28, is not reticent about sharing the journey that led to Bethesda some nine months ago with her three young children, nor the fact that she is HIV positive. She is fervent in her desire that others, especially women, be better educated about how the disease is contracted. While the reported cases of AIDS continues to escalate among Hispanic women, research indicates many of these Latinas are being infected with HIV by their boyfriends or husbands. The results of the research strikes close to home for Ramirez.

Caught in an abusive relationship, Ramirez was infected with AIDS by her ex-boyfriend who knew he was HIV-positive. Once she discovered she was infected, Ramirez still stayed with him, convinced no one else would want her. “He would tell me, ‘Who’s gonna want to go with you? You have AIDS.’ I started to believe it, to believe maybe I wasn’t worth very much.”

As her situation grew more desperate, Ramirez was referred to Bethesda by a social worker last summer. “I just don’t know where I’d be without this place,” she now claims. “They’ve made me understand that I have good things about me…they make you feel like you’re in a family.” When telling her story, Ramirez is unafraid of being recognized and allows her photo to be taken. “Just because we’re HIV positive doesn’t mean people have to run away from us. I don’t mind people knowing I’m HIV positive.”

Residents of Bethesda live in single bedroom units with a private bathroom. Adjoining bedrooms are available for large families. “If one family member is HIV positive, the whole family can come in to be together. We’ve had grandmothers in here with their grandchildren. ‘Family’ is whatever constitutes a family,” says Program Director Julie Lewis.

To offset the austere look of the building’s exterior, the facility’s interior is made as home-like as possible: A large, colorful quilt made years ago by the program’s children welcomes guests and residents as they step off the elevator; drawings from current residents, adults and children, often adorn available wall space; rooms are decorated with flowery wallpaper–and the residence is often noisy, just like a regular house. According to one resident, the best thing about Bethesda House is the way it sounds. People are around; they talk; children scream and cry. This makes him feel like living.

Bethesda occupies the second and third floors of the Zahn Center, a Salvation Army facility near divisional headquarters. A large kitchen provides three meals a day for residents and families can prepare individual meals in a smaller kitchen if they choose. The facility also has a rooftop playground, nursery, and a common-area where residents can gather to watch television or visit with one another. Regularly scheduled support sessions are balanced with weekly and monthly recreational activities. Birthday parties remain the most popular, not-to-be-missed event each month.

Director of Social Services Steve Allen, said the need to expand Bethesda has resulted in exciting plans known as the Alegria project. In mid-summer construction will begin on a 1.6 acre site a few miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles where 45 units of affordable housing will be built, including a child care center, licensed for 70 children. The $8.5 million project will be the largest program of its kind in the U.S, offering three times as many housing units as the present facility. The opening of the new facility is scheduled for the fall of 2000.

“It’s encouraging to know that despite the politics within the AIDS community, these agencies now perceive Bethesda House as the ‘beacon on the hill,’ a Christian model of excellence for families with HIV/AIDS,” said Allen.

(In November 1998, Bethesda House was selected best social services program in the Western Territory and awarded the Western Territorial Award for Excellence. In December, Anne Calvo, executive director of Bethesda House, was recognized for her work and efforts on behalf of AIDS over the past seven years in downtown Los Angeles, by Los Angeles Councilwoman Rita Walters.)


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