From the Start: AIDS Education and Assistance

The Foundation pledged an initial $120,000 grant for New Haven AIDS service organizations in the 1980s.

And the beginning of LEEWAY

Leeway founder Catherine Kennedy (above) died in June of 1998 after months of struggle with cancer. That spring her friends and colleagues established the Catherine Kennedy Foundation for Leeway at The Community Foundation. Doug Rae, Catherine's friend, a retired Yale professor and former Leeway board chair, has called her "the inspiration for a whole generation of New Haven leadership."

The AIDS epidemic, caused by HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus), found its way to the United States as early as 1960, but was first noticed after doctors discovered clusters of Kaposi's sarcoma and pneumocystis pneumonia in young gay men in Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco in 1981.

In the 1980s, the epidemic level of this critical public health issue prompted more national and local action. HIV/AIDS attacked all levels of our communities at every socioeconomic stratum. In 1988 The Foundation presented educational programs for donors and community audiences about this "new" disease. AIDS was already a reality in the city, though many in the region were unaware, uninformed and frightened of this new crisis. The Foundation pledged an initial $120,000 grant for New Haven AIDS service organizations, and it announced the creation of a new fund, Critical Public Health Issues, to organize resources in the fight against AIDS and other emerging public health issues in the city.

The next year The Foundation invited proposals from organizations exploring prevention and education strategies. Contrary to national trends, AIDS in our area was disproportionately found among intravenous drug users and their partners. The Foundation awarded grants from the Critical Public Health Issues fund to support counseling, case management, education and targeted services for HIV-positive children, Latinas, adolescents, and seniors. Among the organizations funded were the Hill Health Center, AIDS Project New Haven, Connecticut AIDS Residence Coalition, Hispanos Unidos Contra EL SIDA, Sage Services, and the AIDS Ministries Program of the Episcopal Diocese.

In 1989 The Foundation made a grant from the George Mixter Fund to support the start of the AIDS Interfaith Network started by Elsie and Curtis Cofield who saw the toll AIDS was taking on the African American community they served through Immanuel Missionary Baptist Church.

And in 1990 The Foundation made a grant to Leeway for start-up costs for a comprehensive in-patient care facility for people living with AIDS. Leeway was the passion and brainchild of Catherine Kennedy who came to New Haven with a public health conscience and the financial and management skills to realize her vision of a nursing home for AIDS patients.

Catherine and Paul Kennedy had moved their family from England in 1983 when Paul accepted a position in the Yale History Department. Catherine completed a master's degree at Yale's School of Management and accepted a consulting position with Aetna Life & Casualty, where she managed a public policy and health insurance portfolio. She compiled data on a disease that appeared to be affecting gay men just as science, public health, and medical researchers were discovering and defining AIDS. The memory of a centuries-old hospice in Norwich, England led Kennedy to wonder why there was no hospice or residential nursing home for AIDS patients. Serendipity surprised the family with a windfall, and they took that as a sign that she should pursue her vision for Leeway, an old English mariner's term for a cliff in a body of water that lends protection in a storm.

For eight years Catherine Kennedy met with legislators, conferred with medical professionals, lobbied leasing agents and realtors, and negotiated with community groups and contractors. She made allies of Yale faculty members, religious leaders, elected officials, and people who had lost loved ones to AIDS.

Leeway opened in 1995 and is recognized today by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services as a Five Star for Quality Measures Skilled Nursing Facility. Over the last 23 years, Leeway has had over 2,000 admissions requiring skilled nursing care.

Leeway is still on the front lines of HIV/AIDS. The good news is that the treatment of HIV/AIDS has transformed the disease from fatal to chronic. That means that the ability now exists to treat HIV/AIDS successfully; and at Leeway, the miracles of treatment are happening every day.

This article is part of a series of stories celebrating The Community Foundation's 90th Anniversary.