Elena’s House provides care, community for people living with HIV/AIDS

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

For the past 12 years, an unassuming ranch house in Wauwatosa has provided physical healing, spiritual comfort and a community of support for people living with HIV/AIDS.

Elena’s House  began in March 2001 after Raphael House, located next door, closed. The latter was run by the Roman Catholic order of St. Camillus, which shuttered the house, leaving the area bereft of a faith-based living facility for people dealing with HIV/AIDS.

Mary Ellen Huwiler, who was a volunteer at Raphael House, had witnessed its healing power and was determined to continue its mission. 

“After the closing of the Raphael House, Milwaukee no longer had a faith-based home for people living with HIV/AIDS,” she says. “Recognizing the need in the community, in August 2000, I along with a team of individuals, including a caregiver, social worker and minister who were associated with the St. Camillus AIDS Ministry, started CommonGround Ministry.”

Elena House is a project of that ministry. Funded through private individuals, foundations and residents, who pay 30 percent of their income – if they have one – the agency also has been a recipient of Milwaukee’s annual AIDS Walk since 2004. This year’s walk takes place Oct. 5 along the lakefront at the Summerfest Grounds.

Elena’s House’s primary fundraiser is “Refashion for Life,” presented by Callen Construction. The sixth annual event will be held Sept. 11, presenting the latest fashions in home remodeling as well as women’s clothing. Last year’s Refashion for Life drew about 250 supporters and raised $20,000. 

Bill Keeton, vice president of government and public relations for the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin, which organizes AIDS Walk, says Elena’s House demonstrates the vital role that fighting isolation plays in achieving successful health outcomes.

“Isolation is a barrier to successful health care outcomes and strips away the dignity of people living with HIV,” Keeton says. “Elena’s House focuses on housing a small group of HIV-positive individuals to become an extended family to them and provide them with a supportive community.”

Each year, Elena’s House serves as many as eight full-time residents. An average of 25 additional individuals participate in programs at the house, such as weekly support groups, joining residents for a meal, or staying at the house on a short-term basis as a respite from their current living situation. 

Since opening, Elena’s House has been home to 66 individuals living with HIV/AIDS. Most of have moved back to independent living in the community, and 12 have died.

“I left Elena’s House renewed in mind, body and spirit,” says a former resident who asked to be identified as “Tim.” 

“Elena’s House is tension-free and is set in front of a wooded area,” he continues. “We plant many flowers. It has been my good fortune to have stayed in a most lovely place. I left refreshed and rejuvenated.  It is a place with a charm of its own description.

“The level of warmth, caring, dignity and respect is second only to the air of peace, love and joy, Wellness happens at Elena’s House.”

Huwiler was a children’s wear designer at Eagle Knitting Mills when HIV/AIDS entered her personal world: Her brother-in-law Stephen Huwiler discovered he had HIV in the mid-1980s, when a diagnosis was a virtual death sentence.

In 1993, Milwaukee experienced the largest waterborne disease outbreak in U.S. history when Cryptosporidium contaminated a portion of the city’s drinking water, sickening 403,000 residents. At least 104 people died, mostly the elderly and people whose immune systems were compromised. One of them was Stephen Huwiler.

“He became too sick to live alone,” Huwiler remembers. “He moved in with our family. Stephen was very scared when he was dying, and he kept saying, ‘Don’t put me in a nursing home.’ A lot of his friends that were HIV-positive had the same feeling. Back in those days, they were treated like lepers – they were not treated with compassion and respect.”

Huwiler left her career in fashion design after 23 years and cared for Stephen until he died in the summer of 1994.

“After Stephen’s death, I no longer had a desire to work in the fashion industry. I wanted to work and care for people living with HIV/AIDS,” she says.

Huwiler became a volunteer with the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin and the St. Camillus AIDS Ministry, where she eventually took a job coordinating volunteers and special events and working with the Raphael House residents.

Elena’s House was named for a resident of Raphael House.

“Elena Kuenzi was a beloved member of the Milwaukee community,” Keeton says. “Incredibly, all in one day, she was diagnosed both with lymphoma and AIDS. Her care and concern for others left a lasting impression on her friends who made her the namesake of this home.”

A Potawatomi Native American, Kuenzi drew on her spirituality for strength, which is one of the underpinnings of Elena’s House’s approach to care. 

“She was diagnosed with AIDS and a brain lymphoma on the same day and given six months to live,” Huwiler says. “But she lived two and a half additional years.”

On the calendar

The sixth annual “Refashion for Life,” the major fundraiser for Elena’s House, takes place on Sept. 11 at Callen Construction, S63 W13131 Janesville Road, Muskego. The event presents the latest in home remodeling ideas, as well as a preview of the fall fashion season from area boutiques, including Lela, Goldies’ Boutique Larrieux, ModE and Urban Laundry. The event includes live music, food from Saz’s Catering, a fashion show and an auction. Register online athttp://www.refashionforlife.com/tickets.html.institutions.