Each year, the Earnest Center for Family Inclusion convenes mothers from all corners of the globe to heal their wounds from the AIDS epidemic. For the past 16 years, Fena Almeida has been one of them. She is currently founder and president of the family-and-health-advocacy group in Los Angeles, where the meetings are held. Almeida and her family moved to Washington from Compton, Calif., to live near Temple Emanuel United Methodist Church, where her husband, the Rev. Ernest B. Almeida, serves as the pastor.
At first, the Almeidas experienced much tragedy and personal loss as Fena’s husband moved from pillar to post as medical director for the Family AIDS Network. “We lost many of my husband’s friends and colleagues to HIV,” she said. “When you’re both African-American and living in Los Angeles, you don’t think of AIDS because it seems so far away. When a friend asks, ‘I’m going to visit you later this month. I haven’t seen you in four years.’ It’s hard to believe.”
The ordeals began on the wedding day. “The first time my husband came into the church with his proposal, he couldn’t see through my veil,” she said. “I was taken by the whole thing and didn’t give any thought to whether I would still be able to marry him.”
In 2008, Fena’s first child — a daughter — became ill with meningitis. “I thought I knew what meningitis was, but this wasn’t like it seemed,” she said. “I took her to the doctor and she had a brain MRI. I was stunned to learn the baby had a life-threatening form of meningitis. She was 2½ and still only 15 weeks old. It was devastating.”
That tragic loss was followed two years later by a second severe illness, which caused severe brain damage and led to the premature death of her daughter, DaKaya. “They had said her brain would never recover, but I had continued to believe it could,” she said. “When I looked at her, it was like an explosion.
“Meningitis is a blood-borne infection that is carried by flies,” Almeida explained. “I believe the mother was carrying HIV. It’s not the mother’s fault. When she got pregnant and got the virus, she suffered more when her baby got sick than when her own child died from meningitis.”
After years of care at two hospitals, DaKaya Almeida died in 2011 at 11 days old. “When she died, I called my pastor, who was studying at Georgetown University,” Almeida said. “We arranged to study there together. Our pastor said, ‘I have something you really need to hear.’ He said, ‘Your child will be gone one day. That day can’t come fast enough. Why don’t you take care of your family first, then begin taking care of your church?’ ”
Fena and her husband attended the First Baptist Church of Columbia Heights, where they worshiped four times a week. “I really wanted to become a minister so I could be a minister of healing,” she said. “My husband and I started attending the Earnest Center for Motherhood in Los Angeles in 2012, and I met other mothers in grieving and healing. I came to realize that I was willing to take on what was holding me back.”
In 2015, Fena Almeida joined the “Women & HIV Collective” for Mothers, a support group for mothers with HIV. “I went to one of their group meetings, and I told my mother in Compton that I wanted to run with this group,” she said. “I was called to serve on the board. And the rest, as they say, is history.”