By: Janelle Hamrick
In the corner of a small, typical neighborhood street in Chattanooga, Tennessee, sits a nondescript brick home that could be easily overlooked.
Inside those walls, people are nearing the end of their lives, and they are being met with the grace and kindness we all deserve and would hope for at such a precious stage. And they aren’t just ordinary people. They are terminally ill homeless and/or veterans. They are disconnected from their families and have nowhere else to go.
Sherry Campbell, a social worker with 11 years hospice care experience, got the idea to begin a local non-profit hospice after witnessing the harsh reality of just how many people have nowhere to go for end of life care.
“It’s not a time that we need to be alone,” she says. “For a good death, we need to know that we’re valued. That we matter. That we will be remembered. That we’re loved and forgiven.”
Sherry and co-founder, Rachel Smith, and group of volunteers, began discussing how to tackle this issue.
In 2013 they applied for a grant. In 2014, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Health Foundation surprised them with a three-year grant award, thus establishing Welcome Home of Chattanooga (WHOC). The home recently received a $50,000 gift from the Detroit-based Multifamily Coalition for Affordable Housing. The money will go toward improvements to the home, such as revamping the bathroom and making it more handicapped accessible. Funds will also be used for administering hospice care, and providing a small living stipend for some of the volunteers.
Veterans and the homeless are the first priority patients at WHOC, but those who have no home, nowhere to go, or anyone to care for them, are also welcome.
Sherry engages in outreach with the hospice, hospitals and agencies that serve the homeless, such as the Homeless Health Care Clinic. She says, “We intend to start doing more outreach in the community for the people we are here to serve, so they know there is a home for them should they need it.”
WHOC has served nine residents since it began operating in March of 2015. But don’t be fooled by the sterility of the word “hospice” – the atmosphere in the four-bedroom house feels like a comforting hug. Residents can live as normal a life as possible. They can get their hands dirty in the garden, or work on a personal project.
Sherry says, “Welcome Home is different – we’re more like a family here. It’s a non-medical facility. We sit at the table together to eat, and we make sure that everybody has a reciprocal relationship. It’s not us coming in and taking care of these ‘poor homeless people.’” She adds, “Residents who want to drink or smoke can do so in moderation. Just because you’re dying doesn’t mean you should lose the rights to do those things.”
Sherry is also an advocate for emotional support, and the home is often an important component in bringing families back together. “In the past, we’ve had such great reconciliation with individuals, and the families are able to come together at the burial.”
And the concern continues after a resident has died. “In Chattanooga, in Hamilton County, if you don’t have funding for a burial, the county will pay for cremation, or [anatomical] donation is an option,” says Sherry. “If it’s a veteran, we try and give a proper burial at the Chattanooga National [Cemetery].”
Donna Dawson is a recent Welcome Home resident. She arrived ill and her health was fading fast after battling her deep, personal grief over her mother’s cancer diagnosis. She consoled herself with vodka. Lots of it. “[My mother] was supposed to die and she lasted two years. It drove me crazy,” says Donna, who medicated her broken heart with so much alcohol she was eventually hospitalized for 35 days. “I got so sick. I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I grieved and I grieved. It took a toll on my health. My brother probably would’ve taken me in, but he’s got children and I thought that would be a burden because I was very weak, very thin, and sort of incompetent.”
After hearing about WHOC through another hospice, Donna decided to give it a try, despite her low expectations. “I didn’t want to go at all. But it was such a wonderful place. I flourished there, and in the end I didn’t want to leave.” The supportive environment she received at WHOC helped Donna to recover her emotional, mental and physical health. She was recently successfully discharged. Sherry helped Donna locate a nearby apartment, and Donna visits WHOC almost everyday to check in or offer volunteer services.
Sherry says, “Donna was dying when she came to us. She started eating and taking care of herself, and helping others around here. She’s an LPN so it was important for her to be taking care of others – that was in her nature. Her last lab results were normal.”
Donna credits the “family unit vibe” for her progress, noting that WHOC is a place to live, and not just a place to wait to die. “Any lil hobby we have, Sherry sees to it that we get what we want. One resident likes to put together models and she supported that. She doesn’t pass any judgment. Welcome Home is not there to save your soul.”
Donna wishes her own mother, who passed away the day after she was discharged from the hospital, had been given the opportunity to rest her head at a place like WHOC at the end of her life. “I lost my mother when I was very ill. We were very close. I have one brother but now I can claim [Sherry] as my sister. I lost a mother but I gained a sister. Sherry brought me back to life.”
Sherry recalls her own rewarding moment. “One day last week we were sitting at the table with the residents and volunteers, just talking and laughing and teasing each other like we do, and George, one of my guys, looked up and simply said, ‘This is great.’ And that’s the whole reason why we’re open. They take care of us, too. We take care of each other.”
WHOC hosts monthly volunteer orientation sessions – and you don’t have to be a caretaker. “Some people just want to help with cooking a meal or help out in the memory garden. After the orientations, the people who want to be caregivers, we teach them during a specific sign up time, but you don’t have to be medically trained in anything,” says Sherry. “Our volunteers that come in are learning about the sacredness of caring for someone at the end of life, and that changes their own lives fundamentally.” While the home currently has more than 80 volunteers, Sherry says they always need more. Donations are also appreciated. “We’re always in need of cleaning supplies and paper supplies, like toilet paper and paper towels. Napkins. We’re in need of a dryer right now. We have one but it’s not working very efficiently.”
If you are interested in learning more about Welcome Home of Chattanooga, donating goods or applying to be a volunteer, you can go to www.welcomehomeofchattanooga.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (423)-355-5842.
Photos courtesy of Welcome Home of Chattanooga.
© Janelle Hamrick, 2015.
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