Raised in Douglas, Ariz., by her business-savvy grandmother, who taught her not to take "mess" from anyone, Elsa started her own HIV prevention and support service aimed primarily at men who have sex with men. Unhappy with the politics and red tape surrounding government funding and AIDS service organizations, Elsa is clear about her philosophy: "Nobody is going to tell me what to do!" Her mission is simply to "do whatever it takes to save one life at a time, and then go on to the next one." And for the past 14 years, that is exactly what she has done.
Elsa combines an in-your-face, no-nonsense delivery of HIV knowledge with pure compassion and love -- and has unquestionably saved many lives in the process. Her résumé of accomplishments, presentations and speaking engagements throughout the United States and Mexico could easily take up this entire biography, but none of that is what really matters to Elsa. What is important to her is doing what she loves in life and knowing that she has made a difference. Her only regret , she says, is that she was not born rich or powerful enough to have made a greater impact through her work. Nonetheless, she is determined to let nothing -- not even terminal bone cancer -- stop her from communicating her message of hope and compassion to people, particularly when it comes to HIV and issues impacting the gay community. The biggest problem HIVers face today, she says, is a lack of love.
Elsa has written and published Autumn Farewell, a personal and deeply moving account of the issues her sons faced as gay men living and dying with AIDS.
How long have you been doing prevention education?
Fourteen years. Since 1991, when my eldest son, Michael, died at 24 years old -- he was diagnosed in 1984. My younger son, Matthew, died at 29. They were wonderful boys. They never went to a New Year's dance unless we all went together.
Can you describe how your work has changed since you first started?
I don't see any progress. My heart bleeds for these kids that nobody gives a damn about. HIV/AIDS has been put on the back burner. There is such a lack of compassion and understanding. I am also not too impressed with the medical side of it.
If I were to follow you over the week, what would I see you do at work?
You would find me listening to and advising people living with HIV and speaking in different places, when my health was better. I am my own boss! Nobody is going to tell me what to say or what not to say!
What's the best thing about your job?
The best thing about my job is the communication I have with people. I love people. I wish that I could win the Publishers Clearing House (sweepstakes) and not have to worry about money. Just thinking about that thrills me!
What's the worst thing about your job?
The lack of funding! Thank you, Mr. Bush! You guys should have an idiot contest -- and he would win, hands down. I wish there was a lot more that I could do. It also saddens me when the people I have worked with die and when the people they love turn their backs on them.
What have been your greatest successes in your work?
When people come to me and tell me that they are doing better and have a job. When change occurs, just knowing that I have made a difference.
And your greatest failure?
My greatest failure is that I didn't have money. I wonder, if I was Mrs. So-and-So, would I have been able to make a bigger impact than just an ordinary person?
I regret that I didn't get involved when my sons did. When they started, neither one of them had HIV.
What is the biggest challenge you face as an HIV prevention educator?
The lack of money and the fact that you get a lot of people who dislike you, especially if you're mouthy -- and you have to be mouthy if you're dealing with gay and HIV issues. The people!
For the most part, what do you think is the biggest risk factor for HIV?
The biggest risk factor for HIV is the lack of communication. Sex is beautiful, if it's correct. By correct I mean between people who care for one another.
Do you think that the HIV prevention efforts are sufficient?
No! I would change how sex education is done in the schools. Teach the children self-control. If you can control your temper and control other emotions, you can control your sexual impulses. That should be taught in schools. Then we would never have to worry about abuse.
What is the most important, memorable or useful thing you have learned from the people you work with?
The hearts and compassion of the people.
How do you maintain a positive outlook and avoid burning out?
Why should you get burned out? I am not doing this for money or for awards or any other reason other than (that) it is something I want to do. And if you want to do something, how can you burn out from it? The part that pisses me off is that I have terminal bone cancer and cannot get out and do my work.
If you weren't a prevention educator what would you be?
Someone who cleans drawers inside the house and moves furniture around. Maybe a part-time teacher. Definitely a homemaker.
What do you think is the biggest problem people living with HIV face today?
Lack of love!
What was your first reaction when told about this award?
I had to ask twice what the young lady had said when she called. I thought: Somebody is pulling my leg! It seems like there are people out there that have done a lot more than I have. I feel humbled. Is it really for real? Why me?!
Who would you dedicate this award to if you could?
My sons, Mike and Matthew.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Douglas, Ariz.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
A dress designer.
What kind of work did your parents do?
My mother was a nurse at a county hospital and my father was an auto mechanic. However, I was raised by my grandmother, who owned property. My birth mother passed away when I was really young and my birth father walked out on me when I was even younger. His loss!
What was your major in college?
I majored in business, which explains why my prevention education business is my own business.
What other jobs have you had?
I worked at a reading program in a school.
Who were the most influential people in your life, both professionally and personally?
My grandmother, both personally and professionally -- 100 percent. She was a smart businesswoman!
What do you do in your spare time?
I love to write. I am truly an old-fashioned girl. I like to crotchet, knit and sew. I am a good housekeeper but a lousy cook.
Do you have a partner?
My husband's name is Ben. He used to own a furniture store but he is now retired, mostly tired!
Any other children?
My daughter is a security guard at a professional building in Kansas City, Mo.
My husband is the only pet -- that's enough!
Where do you live? What kind of community is it? What do you like/dislike about it?
My house is built backward. Does that tell you what kind of community Douglas is? There are only about 14,000 people here -- small community, small minds.
If you had any place to live besides where you live now, where would you live?
Probably Kansas City, Mo. I fell in love with that place. It is not as prejudiced as Douglas is.
What's the best vacation you ever had?
I went with my husband to Montego Bay! It had an impression on me because I can still see it.
What's the biggest adventure you ever had?
Hiding from my grandmother so that she wouldn't catch me smoking. I guess I didn't realize that the smoke was a dead giveaway.
What's currently on your bedside table for reading?
Not too much, because I'm having trouble with reading due to pain medication. I really miss that.
What book would you say has had the most impact on you?
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown!
What kind of music do you like to listen to? Who are the artists you listen to the most?
Romantic music and music that makes you think, relaxing music.
Anything else you think it would be important that people reading this interview know about you?
Don't take life for granted. People would be really surprised at how much happier they would be if they would practice compassion and understanding. Do not forget that what we judge is exactly what we are! Be who you are! I have been exactly who I wanted to be and I have been a happy person.
When I get up in the morning, the first thing that goes on is my music. The second is a cigarette. And then I get on with my day!
Interview by Keith Green