Cleveland’s Ursuline Piazza helps bridge the gaps between HIV-positive individuals and resources already available in the community, and offers many other educational and support services to help them live healthier lives.
Ursuline Piazza Provides HIV-Positive Individuals “A Place to Belong”
In 2007, the Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland partnered with St. Augustine Health Ministries to provide HIV health services and support to HIV-positive individuals in Cleveland. Ursuline Piazza, the resulting organization, operates out of St. Augustine Health Campus, a Catholic Charities nursing facility serving senior adults and the chronically ill, including those with HIV/AIDS. Ursuline Piazza educates about the disease, offers psychosocial support, and connects individuals with resources in the community.
Sister Susan Zion, founder and Executive Director, is the main contact person for anyone coming to Ursuline Piazza for help. She has story after story about individuals she has gotten to know through her work there, and she says she is currently in long-term follow-up contact with about 70 of these people. Being connected to someone who cares is a main ingredient in Ursuline Piazza’s success. With the help of a Volunteer Coordinator and the support of a Board of Directors, Sister Susan creates a safe community where clients can get holistic care. She says that many clients come back to Ursuluine Piazza as volunteers once they have gotten back on their feet. She thinks that is because the community created by Ursuline Piazza is “a place for them to belong.”
The name “Ursuline Piazza” comes from St. Angela de Merici, the 16th-century founder of the Ursuline Sisters. She encouraged the Sisters to be piazzas—the open plaza areas in an Italian town—where all are welcome. This is exemplified in the ways Ursuline Piazza’s volunteers carry out their commitment to “promote the well-being of those affected and infected with HIV/AIDS regardless of the individual’s race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religious affiliation.” Ursuline Piazza doesn’t limit its support to their HIV-positive clients; they do what they can to encourage and educate family members as well. For instance, the 17-year-old daughter of an HIV positive mom and the mother of a newly diagnosed 25-year-old son have both been helped by Ursuline Piazza.
To address some of the psychological and social difficulties affecting their HIV-positive clients, Ursuline Piazza offers Club 95, a monthly support group named after the 95% medication adherence rate toward which all clients are encouraged to strive. Club 95 gives clients a place to learn more about various topics surrounding HIV/AIDS, to connect with HIV service providers, and to have a community of emotional and relational support. Other services offered include: a Life Skills Program on mental health topics offered twice a month by a counselor, bi-weekly sessions with a licensed professional clinical counselor who is also an Ursuline Sister, and updated HIV/AIDS programming for the staff of St. Augustine and other healthcare professionals. Once a week, a lawyer from Nueva Luz, a partner in fighting AIDS in Cleveland, comes in once a week to help clients with legal issues. In 2012, the Ursuline Piazza Program offered 1,705 services to 307 individuals.
In an evaluation recently conducted by the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, clients showed significant improvement in understanding HIV/AIDS and the importance of taking their medications as directed, as well as overall improvement in health because of the help they received at Ursuline Piazza. The study states that, “90% of respondents said their viral load was undetectable,” which means that the likelihood of these people transmitting the disease is reduced by 96 percent. “Ursuline Piazza not only helps individuals, but we also help the community viral load,” says Sister Susan.
Many HIV-positive individuals struggle financially as a result of their disease. Some stop planning for their future and others have difficulty maintaining a job. So when a client was going to be kicked out of his housing because he wasn’t able to come up with that last $20 a month for rent, Sister Susan started what she calls the GAPFund. These are small loans to clients who have been known by the Ursuline Piazza community for a number of years and who just need that little bit of help to make it. Ursuline Piazza hopes to offer an alternative to the fast cash and payday lenders that prey on those struggling financially. The borrower must sign a contract saying she will repay the loan to the fullest extent possible. Sister Susan laughs, “Some of them say, ‘I wouldn’t want to be in debt to a nun,’ so just about everybody has paid me back in full.”
Factors contributing the effectiveness of Ursuline Piazza include:
- Wrap-around psychosocial support services available
- Support extends to family members
- Basic life skills training, financial instruction, and any other practical help clients need are attended to
- Long-term relational support provided when needed