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Ursuline Sisters AIDS Ministry turns 20

Staff photo / J.T. Whitehouse Daniel Wakefield, director of the Ursuline Sisters HIV / AIDS Ministry, shows the food pantry the ministry operates.

CANFIELD — The Ursuline Sisters are celebrating the 20th year of the HIV / AIDS Ministry clinic that opened in May 2001.

The clinic and ministry that operate under the auspices of the Ursuline Sisters Center in Canfield has served many Valley families touched by HIV over the years.

The ministry’s director, Dan Wakefield, explained that the HIV / AIDS ministry actually has its roots almost 30 years ago.

“The ministry began in 1993 as a prayer support and bereavement ministry,” Wakefield said. “There were a lot of people affected by HIV in the area, and there was nothing available to them.”

The Ursuline Sisters, along with Sister Kathleen Minchin and Brigid Kennedy from the Ursuline Association, dedicated themselves to helping those with the human immunodeficiency virus. The ministry went from just a prayer support group to a wide-range, helping hand that provided medical care and even food.

Wakefield said at the time, the only medical clinic available was at Tod Children’s Hospital on the North Side and that was closing.

“To have HIV/AIDS in the 1980s was a death sentence,” Wakefield said.

The virus attacks the body’s immune system. If HIV is not treated, it can lead to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). There is no effective cure.

On top of the lack of care in the area, the Ursuline Sisters found that more than 80 percent of the HIV clients live in poverty. With such grim numbers, the idea to form a clinic to serve Valley families and individuals was an obvious one.

In May 2001, the Ursuline Sisters opened the HIV/AIDS Ministry Clinic in Youngstown’s South Side, at an undisclosed location, and immediately began serving 19 patients. The clinic began with two employees and one doctor.

Today the clinic and ministry serve more than 400 of the 770 people in the tri-county area who are dealing with HIV/AIDS. The clinic now has a staff of 22, four infectious disease doctors and a mental health counselor.

“Many of the people receiving treatment at the Ursuline Sisters clinic are living longer, fuller lives and thriving. Furthermore, successful treatment of their HIV prevents transmission, and so the clinic is helping to empower patients to end the spread of HIV in our community,” said Wakefield.

He said the actual location of the clinic is not advertised as there is still a stigma surrounding those infected with HIV.

While the clinic can provide testing, medical care, and ensure medicine is available and taken as directed, the ministry has spread out to include much more. It provides for everything from a bus ticket or ride to the clinic, to having language translation for non-English speaking clients. Officials said it is the only HIV/AIDS clinic in the Mahoning Valley dedicated to pediatric and adult HIV testing, HIV health care, mental health counseling, case management, and peer support. Those services are also available to anyone regardless of their ability to pay.

In 2015, the program went even further with a housing program. The goal was to end the homelessness of so many with HIV. They would have case workers who would help them become medically stable and even find meaningful work.

In April of last year, with the onset of COVID-19, the program expanded into telemedicine. Clients were then able to get in touch with their doctor on a phone or laptop, or could visit the clinic to access that service.

The clinic and program expanded even more when a food pantry was opened at the Ursuline Center in Canfield. With the realization that such a high percentage of those with HIV are living in poverty, the food pantry helps deal with hunger. The Ursuline Sisters have a drive-up food handout and Sister Kathleen still shows up to greet people.

“Many still rely on her for counsel,” Wakefield said.

As a result, Wakefield said the clinic has enabled clients to get the medicine they need to live a longer, healthier life. He added that even a mother with HIV can now take medications to ensure a newborn tests negative.

It all goes back to that day when the care and love of the Ursuline Sisters began a program to serve those who were forgotten.

“On this, the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Ursuline Sisters HIV/AIDS clinic, the Ursuline Sisters HIV/AIDS Ministry wants to thank everyone who has contributed to its success: from the individual donors, foundations, and community partners who have supported the clinic to the nurses, doctors, social workers, counselors, and other staff and volunteers who bring their best every day, and the Ursuline Sisters, who 28 years ago, when no one else was stepping up to care for people living in poverty and struggling with HIV/AIDS, said, ‘we will do it,'” Wakefield said.

jtwhitehouse@vindy.com

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