Rhaynetta's Cause

Even through her own struggle with the disease, Rhaynetta Cheatham has worked tirelessly to bring AIDS awareness where it's most needed: Miami's black community

McRae's 1993 doctoral thesis for Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta outlined a church program to counter what he calls the "triangle of death in the African-American Community": AIDS, prison, and substance abuse. The church will always play an essential role in caring for and advocating on behalf of AIDS victims, McRae asserts, but he criticizes other pillars of the black community -- political, cultural, and business leaders -- for not recognizing the depth of the problem or wanting to tackle the shame and controversy associated with it. "Nobody wants to be identified with this issue," he says. "There's no reason why at least our politicians shouldn't have this as their main subject, but it's not a popular subject. In our congregation, most of the HIV-positive members know the problems with the system, and all expect very little from the system."

The Mount Tabor members who started MOVERS Inc. six years ago were at least partly motivated by that lack of confidence. The group (whose name, which Cheatham coined, is an acronym for Minorities Overcoming the Virus through Education, Responsibility, and Spirituality) provides counseling, case management, and companionship to HIV-positive people -- virtually every necessary service, in fact, except direct medical care -- out of its storefront offices on NW Seventh Avenue and 56th Street. MOVERS also sponsors a street outreach team. The director, Patricia Kelly, a registered nurse at Jackson Memorial Hospital, is on call 24 hours a day but receives no salary. Last year marked the first time MOVERS received any public money -- $30,000 from Dade County Commissioner James Burke's discretionary fund after a cover story by John Dorschner about Mount Tabor ran in the Miami Herald's Tropic magazine. This year MOVERS has been awarded $95,000 by HRS as part of the agency's Initiatives project, which targets low-income minority neighborhoods. (MOVERS was also awarded a $257,000 federal grant but has lost some of the money because it was unable to get some programs up and running quickly enough to meet the feds' funding requirements.)

In mid-April, Cheatham attends a celebration of the opening of MOVERS's new (albeit unair-conditioned) offices. The festivities include testimonials from several women staffers and volunteers, former crack addicts who wound up at Mount Tabor's Saturday-morning substance-abuse support groups.

"I'm concerned because we're dying," says one, a thin, voluble woman whose street-wariness is hardly concealed by a neat wedge haircut and a linen suit. "We're dying at a fast rate. I do street outreach and I tell everybody on the street corner, 'Yeah, I got AIDS,' and that's a big step for me. Two years ago I wouldn't have told you. I tried to commit suicide after finding out I was positive and my daughter was infected. Today I am a different person." At this the audience members, clustered under the clouds of red and white balloons, stop fanning themselves to applaud.

Another speaker, her handsome, sad-eyed face hinting at a hard past, tells of growing up in a good family, getting a good education, and feeling "something was missing. Eventually I met the rock monster." Her mother bailed her out of jail time after time, she continues, until she had succeeded in alienating her and everyone else who had ever helped her. A judge finally put her into a residential drug-treatment program, and she started going to Mount Tabor. Lifting her eyebrows in a look of self-surprised elation, she concludes, "Today I see my name on this program and not on a jail roster."

After the testimonials, Patricia Kelly steps up holding a plaque bearing Cheatham's name, destined for the door to MOVERS's outreach office down the hall. "This lady is Miss Outreach," Kelly declares as Cheatham uncrosses her legs and gets up slowly from her chair. "She does it better than anybody I've ever seen in my life. She knows how to make them feel welcome." Cheatham accepts the plaque and walks back to her seat, again to applause, without making a speech.

Later, after stepping outside for a few unapologetic (considering the condition of her lungs) puffs from a cigarette, Cheatham finds herself in the outreach room that will soon bear her name, discussing new and old AIDS medications with several MOVERS workers. "It's supposed to be the latest miracle," she says of a popular drug. "But they haven't followed people up. You'd be surprised how many jump on the bandwagon when they say they got a new pill that's gonna give you a sixteen-year-old butt and make you look like Cindy Crawford. But five years down the road, you're worse off than when you started. I ain't that desperate. Not any more. I got a God who keeps me from getting desperate." She leans her elbows on her knees and looks straight ahead, expressionless.

As Cheatham is leaving, a woman takes her plaque out of its plastic wrapper and holds it up against the Rhaynetta Cheatham McDonald Outreach Room's door. "You have to be half-dead to get one of those," Cheatham remarks as everyone admires the bank-office look of the door. All fall silent.

Cheatham was the elder of two children growing up in a strict, religious, middle-class home in Plant City, an agricultural town of about 23,000 just northeast of Tampa. Her father, who served in Italy during World War II, worked hard at a variety of labor jobs, and her mother cleaned the houses of Plant City's more privileged white population. But her mother and her aunt and other female relatives also sat on church, school, and civic committees; at a time when racial segregation and vast inequalities were the order of the day, the women in Cheatham's family were doing what they could within the black community to improve social conditions and instill pride. "They put bows in little girls' hair, and they bought shoes for children whose families were too poor to buy them," Cheatham recalls. "And I resented them paying all that attention to other kids when I needed it. Ironically, now I'm just like them." Her little brother, she says, was as docile and obedient as she was rebellious.

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