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By JUSTIN GEORGE, Times Staff Writer
Published November 22, 2007
[Ken Helle | Times]
TAMPA - Joy Winheim first noticed entitlement sneaking into Francis House during the holidays last year.
A needy client turned down a gift card. He didn't like the store.
"I'm not going to use this," she recalled the client saying.
Winheim, director of the HIV and AIDS nonprofit center, had caught wind of clients bad-mouthing staff members when someone else got an extra dollar here or there.
Counselor Susan Whitney had also detected a lack of appreciation. The thing she heard most was "give me, give me, give me."
"This has got to stop," Winheim remembers saying. "We were giving all we could."
At the next staff meeting she declared that the nonprofit was going to become more grateful. It wasn't going to be a place where people get but never give.
Winheim, 34, and Whitney, 46, knew the value of gratitude. Winheim's mother had made her stay pen pals with a boy in India whom they helped through a charity. Whitney's parents made her say thank you before they took her to Dairy Queen, a rare treat for a family of 12.
Both women knew that getting something for nothing can make people quit fending for themselves. These days, people can live for years with HIV, Winheim said. She wanted them to live independently.
The disease had already robbed many of the clients of pretty much all they had, including acceptance.
Ninety-five percent were on disability. Most were male between the ages of 12 and 69. Many lived in subsidized housing or shelters. Nearly all were single, divorced or widowed, chasing survival on their own, worried about proper nutrition, the price of medication and every little cold.
As far as Winheim and Whitney were concerned, too many had become self-centered.
So Winheim came up with Francis dollars.
And Whitney came up with the trash walk.
No longer would donated furniture and clothes be a free-for-all. Clients would have to earn dollars to buy them by cleaning the kitchen or bathrooms or by running the front desk.
No longer would Francis House receive donations and give back nothing. Members were going to pick up trash around the neighborhood.
Soon, Winheim saw a change. People began to give each other Francis dollars they had earned. Whitney saw men like George Brandon, 55, a housekeeper for three decades, look back with pride on streets he had swept.
The chores kept people busy and made them feel good about themselves, almost like they had jobs, said client Brian Arsenault, 49.
Those who felt Francis House owed them something now felt as if they owed Francis House, said Katherine Brown, 49, another client.
But even amid support group discussions of generosity, even with handout poems about gratitude, some said they didn't want to pick up other people's trash.
"Some could care less," Whitney said.
She led by example anyway, calling out for volunteers three times a week after lunch.
One day not long ago they were on the sidewalks outside Francis House with their trash cans and latex gloves.
Because some were too sick to do much physical work, they kept to a block, picking up cigarette butts.
"The world is not your ashtray," Roxanne Broder, 44, said in disgust.
Whitney, stooping to pick up a straw, pointed out that police cars sometimes stop to watch the curious sight. She hoped spectators would join in.
"It's a good thought," Keith Laurent, 46, said with a hint of skepticism.
The group went on, picking up M&M wrappers, juice bottles, even tires, but always hoping for aluminum cans. Cans are recycled into cash, which will be given to the two churches that help Francis House the most and paid for last year's gift cards.
Including the card no one wanted.
Justin George can be reached at email@example.com or 813 226-3368.
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[Last modified November 21, 2007, 23:45:02]