A Promise Kept: Kathy Hanousek’s 30th Anniversary Story — 

A Part of Our 30 Years / 30 Stories / 30 Gifts Campaign

It was a wet and dreary late fall evening in 1996 when Kathy Hanousek and her fellow volunteers walked two-by-two, knocking on doors in Kathy’s sleepy Mac-Groveland Neighborhood. Their mission was an important one – be a good neighbor. Their message – the news that Clare House, a brand-new care home for people living with HIV/AIDS was about to open right down the street.

“We were not asking for permission,” Kathy recalls. “But it was important to let people know we were there, and to ask for volunteers to help out. Just about everything was done by volunteers in the early days.” The prospect of a hospice for people living with an illness that few people understood at the time could have upset some people. Fortunately, Kathy lived in the neighborhood.

Kathy Hanousek, a founder of Clare Housing

“We told people that we were going to be the best neighbor they’d ever seen, and if we were not, well, they knew exactly where I lived!” Kathy said with a smile. Her candor and confidence worked, when Kathy and her fellow volunteers reconvened at Clare House that evening, all reported that their conversations went surprisingly well.

So what, you might wonder, had driven Kathy to help found the first AIDS Care Home in St. Paul, and to set off on that cold, wet night to share this potentially controversial news with her neighbors? A promise.

A Promise That No One Would Die Alone

Like many who became passionately involved in AIDS advocacy during the early days of the epidemic, Kathy’s reason for becoming involved were personal. Her own brother John contracted HIV and developed AIDS at a time when only few medications were available. Complications developed swiftly for John, and he did not linger after getting sick. He passed away in Kathy’s arms. Before John died though, Kathy promised him that she would create a care home for people like him, so no one would have to die alone.

For Kathy and her large, Irish Catholic family, John’s identity as a gay man, as well as his death of complications of AIDS was a huge shock. But Kathy believed in facing things, as she says, “right down the middle.” After all, she had a promise to keep.

At that time, there were only 12 beds for people living with HIV at a small handful of AIDS Care Homes, as they were called then, mostly in Minneapolis. There were no Care Homes in St. Paul. Kathy met with fellow community members, many of them from the Catholic Community in St. Paul, to talk about addressing this shortage.

“The Lord Sent the Right People”

Community organizers and nonprofit powerhouses like Sister Kathleen Manahan, Sister Anne Elise Tschida, Rhonda Lundquist, Cari Trousdale, and John Estrem were on the team. A vision was created for Clare Housing – and uniquely for its time, from its inception the organization was always seen as more than just the first care home it produced, Clare House, but instead as a broader organization that could grow and adapt to meet the needs of those living with HIV.

That vision, carried forward by Carol Roeller, the first executive director, and first thought of by Sister Manahan, who sadly passed away just a month before Clare House’s opening, was instrumental in creating the organization as it exists today. “Did we hustle those first five years!” Kathy reflects. “It was a full-time job just doing the education and funding, and that was mostly what I focused on.”

Fortunately, Kathy and her team of founders were quickly joined by a host of other community members, each with their own unique skills to share. “The lord sent the right people at the right time to get things going,” Kathy said.

Other community leaders joined the board like Father John Malone, who let the budding organization use office space at Assumption School, still others found ways to donate to support the organization, like KSTP’s Barbara Carlson, who wrote a book and donated the proceeds. Another friend hand made two beautiful wooden rocking chairs for the porch, and an especially organized youth volunteer put her all into hosting a yearly a fundraising tea at Nativity School.

“It was an endeavor,” Kathy said. “We worried, we worked. We all did our part, whatever needed to be done.” Just as the organizers of Clare House were doing their part, so were people at other care homes like Grace House, Agape Home, Samaritan Home, Hope House, and others. After a few years, it became apparent that the needs of people living with HIV were changing.

New Treatments Transform into New, and Different Needs

Thanks to new and effective drug treatments, people who came to Clare House, and other care homes, began to get better. Although some patients would struggle with complications of AIDS like neurological damage, that would require the support of a care home long term, many no longer needed that level of treatment. As needs were shifting, so was funding. Many of the care homes found themselves struggling to get the resources to keep their doors open.

It was around this time that many care homes began to merge, and some of them, to close. Clare Housing followed this trend by eventually merging into AIDS Care Partners. “We knew down the road to survive we would have to work together,” Kathy explained. “Lee Lewis, our second executive director, really made that happen with the merger with AIDS Care Partners. Costs were rising, and change was needed.”

A Promise Renewed Each Day: The Enduring Spirit of Clare House

Although the original Clare House has now returned to a family home, Kathy knows that the spirit of Clare House lives on in scattered-site housing, four Care Homes, and soon to be four state-of-the-art apartment buildings that form Clare Housing today. It also lives on in the hearts and minds of the people who volunteered at the care home, who now have a deeper understanding of HIV/AIDS, and more compassion for those living with the illness thanks to their involvement. As Kathy says, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” Clare House became a place where people could live their truth, and others could witness and accept them.

As for Clare Housing’s future, Kathy would love to see an end HIV/AIDS, through a cure and prevention. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all our great housing and funding could go to a new critical new cause because we’ve solved the epidemic?” What a wonderful wish – and one we strive to achieve. Either way, the compassion and love that Kathy and her founders poured into Clare House will continue – like a loving promise kept each day.

Special thanks to Kathy for sharing her story so generously with us!