- Associated Press - Monday, December 10, 2018

STILLWATER, Minn. (AP) - Melissa Shaffer works part-time in the fitting room of a local discount retailer, has a gray short-haired cat named Sabrina, and likes to shop until she can shop no more.

Her life is very different from what she thought it might be 13 years ago, when she was diagnosed with AIDS.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Shaffer, 47. “I was scared.”

Shaffer said she contracted the disease by “sleeping with the wrong person” during a one-night stand in 1998. About six months later, her doctor sat her down during her annual exam and told her she was HIV-positive.

Shaffer, who grew up in Minnetonka, now lives at Hope House, an adult foster-care home in Stillwater for people living with HIV/AIDS.

Shaffer moved to the house in 2013 after spending three years in a Minneapolis nursing home.

“I was living with my grandparents in Minnetonka, but I had injured my hip in a car accident, and I had surgery and my hip got infected,” she told the Pioneer Press . “I couldn’t live with them anymore.”

At Hope House, a large two-story Victorian in the North Hill neighborhood, staff members help Shaffer keep track of her medications and make sure she eats healthful meals. Shaffer weighed 260 pounds and used a wheelchair when she arrived at Hope House; she now weighs 129 and walks with a cane.

“I’m doing really well,” Shaffer said during a recent tour of Hope House. “I’m undetectable. That means the virus is there, but it’s not active. I had (Hepatitis) C when I first got here, but that’s been cured, too.”

Casey and Teresa vanderBent, who lived in the North Hill area at the time, founded Hope House in December 1993; the first resident moved in 25 years ago. Licensed under the Minnesota Adult Foster Care law, it is one of five Twin Cities foster-care residences for people living with AIDS.

“It came out of a sense of a spiritual call,” said Casey vanderBent. “We both felt that there was something we were supposed to do.”

When the couple heard about Grace House in Minneapolis, the state’s first adult foster-care home for people living with HIV/AIDS, they knew they had found their calling. The couple formed a task force with other parishioners from People’s Congregational Church in Bayport and began looking for a house in 1991.

The next year, the group paid $60,000 for a house that needed to be removed for the expansion of St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Stillwater’s South Hill. They then bought a double lot from the Stillwater Area School District - just north of what is now New Heights School - and moved the house across town, vanderBent said.

In 25 years, the people who live at Hope House and the lives they lead have changed significantly, vanderBent said.

The first resident of Hope House arrived by ambulance on a cold and snowy December day with the expectation “that he would live briefly and die at the house,” vanderBent said. “He lived three weeks. In 15 months, we had 13 deaths.”

Now, three of the four Hope House residents have part-time jobs, one drives his own car and one has lived there for nine years.

“It looks very different, but the need continues to be strong,” vanderBent said. “We’re thrilled that it continues to be a place that provides compassionate care without any judgment and continues to be an organization that the community can own.”

Residents receive assistance with daily living activities, access to health care, medication supervision, 24-hour care and help navigating various social services, said Bill Tiedemann, executive director.

“Many of our residents arrive here in need of a trusting environment, so that they can restore faith in themselves and hope for their future,” Tiedemann said. “Hope House is a transformative place. It’s no surprise that our residents thrive because we offer an environment filled with love, dignity and respect - core values we all deserve.”

Eighty-six people have lived at the home since it opened 25 years ago; the average length of stay used to be six months or less.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, there are 123 HIV-positive cases in Washington County and 76 people living with AIDS. Statewide, 4,738 people are HIV-positive.

Tiedemann became executive director of Hope House in 2016 after former executive director Scott Zahren died suddenly.

“The mourning period was pretty extensive,” Tiedemann said. “Scotty was such a huge personality.”

Tiedemann, who lives in Mendota Heights, previously served as executive director of the Minnesota AIDS Project. Before that, he worked for the Ohio Department of Health, where he was the program administrator in the HIV/STD/Hepatitis/TB division.

Hope House has moved from being a hospice program to being fully assisted living since the introduction of triple-combination drug therapy in 1997, Tiedemann said.

“Did we think five years ago that our residents would start working part-time? No,” he said. “We have three residents working part-time now. It’s amazing. Today we’re talking about HIV and aging - a whole new population that we’re thinking about serving, and how do we serve this population with dignity and compassion?”

Because being diagnosed with AIDS is no longer a death sentence, Hope House officials are looking at doing more outreach in the St. Croix River Valley “so more than four people can benefit,” board president Tom DeGree said.

One option under consideration: training staff at other long-term care facilities to care for patients with HIV/AIDS, he said.

“We have done what we do well, but how do we reach out to more and stay valid?” said DeGree, of Lake Elmo. “How do we train caregivers who are working with people who are living with HIV/AIDS? There’s still ignorance and stereotypes and perceptions of what it looks like.”

People with HIV/AIDS should have the option of staying in the St. Croix River Valley if they want, he said.

“No one should have to move to Minneapolis” for such care, he said. “You should be able to live in the environment that you want to live in … and you feel safe in.”

Shaffer said she can’t imagine living anywhere else.

“I love it here,” she said. “You get to be more independent. You can go places and do things. You have your own room and your own bathroom you don’t have to share, and you can do all your own laundry.”

“A friend lived here, and I fell in love with the place,” said Jones, 52, who was diagnosed with AIDS in 2006. “Do I get good care? I’m going to tell you right now, I get the best care here.”

His one complaint?

“This place is too far out,” he said. “Where I lived in Bloomington, I was right next to my Chinese restaurant. I haven’t ordered Chinese food in so freaking long.”


Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com

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