Once a month, Dr. Beverly Cleaves brings her endocrinology practice to the Klondike community. Her longstanding Friendship Feeding Program provides a medical clinic, clothes and food drive and a hot meal to North Memphis.
Dr. Beverly Williams-Cleaves, a pioneer and visionary, is saving lives but not necessarily in a hospital setting.
Her work as an endocrinologist extends beyond the hospital and office to the Klondike community in North Memphis and its Friendship Baptist Church where many of the members are Dr. Cleave’s patients or former patients.
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For the past 25 years, Dr. Cleaves has spearheaded the Friendship Feeding Program, which each fourth Saturday of the month provides members of the Klondike community a hot and balanced meal as well as a clothes closet and screenings for blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol completed by the church’s health ministry.
Demand for the long-standing service remains strong with an average of 100 participants attending the monthly event.
According to research findings from Methodist LeBonheur's Community Health Needs Assessment, North Memphis neighborhoods face a woeful absence of available healthcare. Cleaves fills that gap for many in the community.
Dr. Beverly Cleaves
During the screenings, she discovered that some members of the community needed immediate attention for high blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
She had to make snap decisions as to whether she’d write a note explaining the patient’s condition to family members, drive them to hospital herself or call ahead to the emergency room to alert medical staff that the person needed to be seen.
“I’d have to do all kinds of interventions,” she said. If she was able to talk to the physician, she would assure the doctor she was only alerting him to the condition of his patient. “I was not trying to take over the care of the patient.”
Dr. Cleaves also realized that many of the persons she screened didn’t know that they were eligible for TennCare. Some needed follow-up medicines or treatments and even some didn’t know the names of their physicians.
She and the Health Ministry took it all in stride. It's a task she had been preparing her whole life to serve.
A Memphis native, Dr. Cleaves knew she wanted to be a doctor as early as high school. Her father, John Ed Williams, who grew up in Fayette County, had only a fifth grade education and was forced to drop out of school because his grandfather needed an extra field hand for the farm.
Consequently, Williams encouraged his three daughters to pursue their dreams and educate themselves.
In addition to a homemade meal to Klondike Smokey City residents, the Friendship Feeding Program also sends their neighbors home with bags of canned goods and several pounds of frozen chicken.
“My father would always say that he would do whatever it took to help his children go to school,” she said. “But he didn’t have to force us to go to school. It wasn’t a problem for us because we enjoyed it.”
Drawing from that strong foundation, Dr. Cleaves’ her middle sister, Dr. Ethelyn Williams-Neal, is a pediatrician and her oldest sister, Dr. Willie M. Crittenden, who died two years ago, held a doctorate in education.
Education embraced Dr. Cleaves and she embraced it. She is considered by her colleagues to be the consummate professional and has been named in Memphis Magazine as one of the premier endocrinologist in the region.
In addition to her community acumen, she is currently CEO and medical director of the Comprehensive Diabetes and Metabolic Center of Excellence at 2829 Lamar Avenue.
After 30 years as an associate professor in Medicine & Endocrinology at University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Dr. Cleaves retired in 2011.
“My major areas of focus were general endocrine practice and teaching, and I served as chief of endocrinology at the MED and MedPlex Endocrine Clinics,” she said. Her research involved the effects of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, synthetic growth hormone in adults and Vitamin D deficiency.
Supporting a healthy community came full-circle in 2010 when a neighborhood branch of the Mid-South Food Bank joined Dr. Cleave’s monthly health screenings and hot meals. About 120 people patron the food bank program every month.
“The program started as a banquet to feed the poor based on a scripture we studied in Sunday School in which a man invited his friends to a banquet, but they all had excuses for not attending,” said Cleaves. “It was later told to the man that he needed to invite the poor because they needed it and would appreciate it more,” she said.
“As a member of the trustee board at church, we were seeing so many needy families coming to church in need of food, clothing and in some cases housing,” Dr. Cleaves said.
The food bank program serves as a supplement to people receiving food stamps whose allowance would run out before the end of the month. Also, there is an allowance for walk ins, despite the usual requirements of a food stamp card, evidence of supplemental security income or photo identification.
“They could either get food through our food pantry at the church, the second component of our food program or fill out paperwork to get food the day that they apply through the food bank,” she explained.
Her husband, Calvin Cleaves, helps with the food bank distributions, along with volunteers at the church.
For Dr. Cleaves, long hours and frequently not returning home until after 10 is a way of life. But she rarely complains and her upbeat personality and wry sense of humor are infectious. “Yes, the hours are long sometimes, but I love what I do. So in many ways it’s a calling.”