House of Hesed

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Success Fleeting but Love Lasting

Volunteers turn Langside property into haven, palliative care centre for AIDS patients

Wed, Jan 24, 01
Lindor Reynolds

DALE REEVES-FRENCH, thin and frail under a home-made quilt, grins when he's asked about his life. There was his life before, he explains, and then his life after. Before was his life on the streets, his stint with the Indian Posse, his diagnosis with HIV and his hospital admission, one that was predicted to end in his death.  Before was a dark and lonely place.

After, well, after is House of Hesed, a HIV/AIDS transition house, a place where Reeves-French says he's found friends, family and God.  

"There's no place like this in the city," says Reeves-French, 28, who believes he contracted HIV in a fight. "There are people who love me. I need to be loved, not ignored." He glances at his hands. "That's what we all need."

House of Hesed is a seven-bedroom home on Langside, a lovely, restored house in an area previously known for desperation and squalor. It was donated by a private benefactor, a man who also provides emergency cash when the money crunch gets desperate. There are bedrooms for six clients, a seventh for a staff member, a large remodelled kitchen, a dining room and a recreation area. All the rooms are bright, clean and cheery, making this look like a place where a caring family has decided to make a home.

The name refers to a word used in the Old Testament to describe God's love.

Yesterday, the kitchen and dining room were buzzing as two volunteers from St. Theresa's parish led staff and clients in a perogy-making lesson.

"I'm not here for a medal," said Theresa Procyshyn, a grandmother of six. "This is probably my favourite place to come. They're nice guys, right?" She smiles at Reeves-French as he discovers the intricacies of stuffing a perogy.

Procyshyn also dropped off a number of quilts, the handiwork of nuns and other women in the church. These are good people, she says, and they need some help.

The matriarch of the House of Hesed clan is house director Moe Feakes, a plain-spoken woman who tears up when she talks about some of her "boys." The house accepted its first client in December, 1998, and Feakes hasn't looked back. The clients are referred by hospitals and other AIDS organizations. While the intended length of stay is three to six months, Feakes uses her discretion.

"Some of them are here on a transitional basis," she says. "We do need more palliative care because these people don't have anywhere else to go."

Project co-ordinator Maresa Davidson says it's sometimes difficult to measure success in a place like House of Hesed. They're now mourning the recent death of one beloved client, a man whose family still believes he died of cancer. At the same time, they're preparing for the arrival of a man who will require constant care. Other than some home-care workers, the house runs with three paid staff and a raft of volunteers. It's a grind that wears on everyone.

"I guess when you really see the change physically in the clients, when they start to gain weight, and when they start to change emotionally, that's success," says Davidson. "When some of our residents are able to give back to the community by volunteering somewhere else, that's success."

There are plans for expanding House of Hesed, maybe buying the house next door, joining the two and putting in an elevator. But without money, they're just dreams.

"There's so much we need," Feakes says. "We need to know we can hire another staff member, that we can supply proper palliative care, that we can feed our clients. We are doing this without government funding but it's hard."

The clients are generally on social assistance, money that covers the cost of their rooms. Winnipeg Harvest helps with groceries and the rest usually comes from small, one-time donations.

It's no wonder Moe Feakes sometimes weeps for her boys. This is a brutally fragile way to offer a family to those who need it most.