There is a family home on North Everett Street that looks like the others in its wooded Stillwater neighborhood. Inside, it is quite unique. Although those in the home aren’t related, the residents, staff and volunteers at Hope House of St. Croix Valley do constitute a family, of sorts.
Since 1993, the adult foster home has provided accommodations and compassionate care to individuals living with HIV/AIDS.
Kat Hill’s brother-in-law was diagnosed with HIV in the late ‘80s and succumbed to the disease in 1994. “I jumped at the chance to get involved with the cause and educate people about HIV/AIDS,” says Hill, who serves as the facility’s care director.
Scott Zahren, now in his 14th year as Hope House’s executive director, says it was an associate’s ill-informed comment about “the kind of person who gets AIDS” that first spurred him to become a board member back in 1995. Through community engagement, he aims to combat the pernicious stereotypes.
“People thought you could contract the disease from toilet seats, drinking out of the same glass, [using] the same utensils,” Hill says of the period of time she first got involved. “I’m so glad that society’s thinking has changed, [though] there are still a lot of people who are not educated enough about HIV/AIDS.”
Delpha Hanson of Hudson first joined Hope House’s volunteer force in the late ‘90s while working as an infection control nurse. Hanson recalls that the disease inspired fear, even among medical professionals. “When we had our first HIV patient at the hospital, people were afraid,” she says. “I was telling [my co-workers] they didn’t need to be concerned about catching the disease by just taking care of a person. [Working at Hope House] was a kind of ‘walk the talk’ thing for me.”
In spite of new treatment options that enable “longer, healthier, more productive lives,” Zahren contends that Minnesotans living with HIV/AIDS still face the same need for housing that inspired co-founders Teresa and Casey VanderBent to open the home back in 1993.
Keeping up with a regimen of 15-plus pills per day is a daily struggle for many HIV/AIDS patients. “Even in the best of circumstances, this can be challenging,” Zahren says. “When you add dementia, chemical dependency and [other] mental health [issues], it can get quite confusing. Families might try to help manage this, but often, their full-time work interferes.” That’s where Hope House comes in.
These days, Hope House contends with a new set of challenges. As public attention to the issue has waned over the past decade, so have donations and governmental support. “[People think] AIDS is under control, that it’s no longer a death sentence,” Zahren says. “Unfortunately, that’s just not the case. Death is still knocking at their doors.”
Every resident’s story is different. The staff supports residents’ short- and long-term goals, whatever they may be: achieving independence, maintaining sobriety or obtaining a college degree. “We offer an environment for them to recover their health, independence and confidence to get back out on their own,” Zahren says. “If we can get them to move out, that’s a success story.”
Through the years, 15 residents have moved on to independent living and 23 more have moved into assisted living facilities. The contrast between these outcomes and those that existed even a decade ago is stark. “[Approximately] 18 residents were in and out during those first two years. We were basically operating as a hospice,” Zahren says.
“Now they don’t come here to die,” Hanson adds. “They come to heal. This isn’t their final place. It’s a launching pad.”
Hope House is supported by a small staff and dedicated local volunteers. Funding is provided by Minnesota’s Community Alternative for Disabled Individuals Waiver, in addition to local assistance from community churches, the Lake Elmo Lions Club, the United Way of Washington County East and private donors.
For more information, visit hopehousescv.org.
A note from our Editor:
We send our deepest condolences to the family and friends of Scott Zahren of Stillwater. We had the pleasure of working with him while preparing articles for this month's issue on the Cruisin' on the Croix event and Hope House, an adult foster care residence for people living with HIV/AIDS where he served as executive director.