Sometimes being remarkable can be bittersweet. Francis House announced this year that they would be merging with AIDS Service Association of Pinellas (ASAP) under the umbrella of Empath Health. This new organization, Empath Partners in Care (EPIC), would be headed by Francis House’s previous executive director Joy Winheim.
“When we were first approached [by ASAP], we thought there is no way we’re doing this, we don’t need to do it,” Winheim says. “We had plenty of grant money. We’re doing well you know, we have 800 clients. We’re not having any issues so why would we think about this.”
Winheim sat with the decision for a bit and ultimately decided the merger was the best thing she could do for Francis House.
“The deciding factor was that all of our funding is coming up in the next year or so, and if I inadvertently miss one piece of information or forget one paper when I go for grants, because it’s all me, then I lose all that money I have let people go,” she says. “So it was not an easy decision. It was very tough. I kept telling my family I said you know this is either going to be the best decision I’ve ever made for this place or the absolute worst.”
It has always been an “all-in” kind of agreement Winheim had with Francis House.
Born and raised in New York, Winheim came out to her parents when she was 23 then moved down with her girlfriend to Florida.
“I thought it would be the best idea to get out of my parents’ house and explore myself as an adult, and of course it had to be 1,200 miles away,” Winheim says. “I became independent, had a job and my own car and I was taking care of myself.”
While that relationship didn’t work out, it brought Winheim to the place she would call home, Tampa Bay.
Winheim was running the HIV program at a substance abuse facility in 2005 when she had an unexpected conversation with Francis House.
“Someone from Francis House came over and asked why I wasn’t sending over my clients,” Winheim says. “I said,‘If I can speak honestly, it’s because I don’t like your counselors and I don’t like the way they talk to people. I think they’re unethical and I’m just not comfortable sending people there.’”
This conversation opened the eyes of Francis House, and Winheim was immediately asked to join its team.
“I wrote all these demands down – pay requirements and insurance benefits – not thinking anything was going to happen. She came back and said we want to hire you. We’ll do everything you want. So they hired me. I think she regretted it the very next day,” Winheim says.
When Winheim came to Francis House, it had only seven clients who were coming for services.
“I specifically remember sitting down in my office saying , ‘I just left my very stable job and my very stable office and my very stable paycheck and I don’t know if we’re going to be here in six months, we had very little funding,’” Winheim recalls. “We had a part time executive director, whom I adore, but who’s still only there part time. So a lot of things were falling on me, and it was just one of those opportunities to say,‘I’ve got to make it work or it’s not going to work.’
Winheim gathered her small team together and went to work. They started by going through all the client files to figure out where they all had gone and why they stopped coming back. The key to Francis House becoming a success – seeing the clients as people and not files.
“We started to implement better support groups, and we stopped serving frozen meals and we started cooking fresh,” Winheim says. “Slowly people started to come, and then we got a little bit more money and then more people started to come. Then the groups got better and we did some fun things.”
Winheim saw that her job was to take an organization that started 26 years ago which looked to help those with AIDS die with dignity, compassion and caring and convert it into a place where people with HIV and AIDS could come to live without fear.
“We instituted a summer series and had a luau in the parking lot, and you know, just did things with them over the summer or on the weekends,” Winheim says.
After two years, Francis House increased their client list and had 25 people who were coming to them every day for care and services. The year 2007 was also when the position of executive director became available.
“They said they were going to go on a search for a new executive director, and I don’t know that the search ever even started before I called up and said, ‘I’m already doing it so let me just do it,’ and they were like,‘OK.’ I just I think it just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Winheim says.
Francis House started 2016 with 800 clients who come for at least one service. They offer support groups, mental health counseling and relapse prevention. They cook breakfast and lunch every day and operate a food pantry, give out bus passes and offer emergency assistance where clients can get help with rent, utilities and housing.
“We do anything that we can fit into a day to kind of keep them here and safe and well,” Winheim says.
That kind of compassion is what led ASAP to approach Winheim about the merger.
“We did not want it portrayed that Empath and ASAP were coming in to gobble us up, because that’s not what it was,” Winheim says. “This is a true partnership.”
Just as she did in 2005 when she came to Francis House, Winheim came to the merger with a few demands.
“In going through with the merger we wanted to make sure that our staff was protected and we could keep our buildings, at least for now,” she says. “It was very important for us to keep the Francis House name as a component of the new entity as well so the name here in Tampa will be EPIC at Francis House campus. Our name and our reputation means a lot to the clients.”
Now the executive director of EPIC, Winheim will go from managing 800 clients at Francis House to more than 10,000 in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. A task she is ready to take on.
“I like to be challenged, I think I work best that way,” she says.
Gallery photos by Jake Stevens.