(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)
“What are you going to do now, Mary?”
The question came from one of her Sunday School friends the first weekend after Elmer and Merle moved to Springfield.
Mary gave the woman an inquisitive look. “What do you mean, what am I going to do?”
“I meant now that your mom and dad have gone…and Jimmy’s away in Richmond…that’ll leave some empty spaces. Just wondering how you’re doing with that.”
Mary smiled and gestured as though brushing the comment aside. “I guess I’ll do the same things I’ve always done…cooking, housekeeping, running errands, and taking care of Paul.”
“Well, if you need anything, don’t hesitate to call on me,” the woman said, touching Mary’s shoulder supportively.
That’s what people always say, Mary thought. “Thanks. If I need you, I’ll call.”
Later, back at the house, Hugh cleaned up the dinner dishes while Mary put Paul down for a nap, then they sat at the table. She told him about the conversation at church. “I guess I must be pretty transparent,” she said. “We’ve been talking about the dilemma we will face in a couple of years when Paul turns twenty. I guess the reality of our empty nest, with everybody but Paul off on their own, makes it feel urgent.”
Hugh nodded. “I know what you mean. I’ve been thinking about that same thing lately…just hadn’t mentioned it.”
They were talking about the policy at the CP Center in Harrisonburg which said that when their clients reached eighteen, the magic age of adulthood, they became ineligible to continue receiving therapy and academic training. She had talked about this with her friend, Aileen Clatterbuck, whose CP son, Don, had already reached that point. An idea had been gnawing away in the back of her mind. She decided this was the time to talk about it.
“I’ve been thinking. Remember how we helped start the CP group in Cincinnati? We did it because all the doors for care were closed to Paul, and we wanted to open new ones.” Hugh nodded and she continued. “God blessed us with that effort, and with helping get the center here started.”
Hugh put his hand on hers. “I think I know where you’re going with this. You’re thinking maybe we can get something started that will pick up where the center leaves off.”
He grinned. “Guess what? I’ve been thinking about that same thing…just haven’t talked about it yet.”
Mary felt relieved. The first hurdle with a really different or challenging idea was to get it out into the open. They stood up spontaneously, embraced and kissed, then held each other for a moment. “So tell me what you’ve been thinking.”
That’s how the “gap” Mary’s friend at church had sensed began to get filled with seeds of a bold and challenging venture. They spent hours talking about it, researching projects of a similar nature, and exploring the laws and regulations they would have to honor.
“I see this as more than a school,” Hugh said one day. “The more I look at it, we need to have a live-in facility. I’m finding out about so many handicapped adults whose aging parents have lost the ability to care for them. They’re isolated with little nurture or support. They need a residential facility.”
Mary agreed. She was thankful that along with being a good salesman, her husband had a sound grasp of how to organize projects and get things done. The more they explored and talked, the bigger the undertaking seemed to become. They prayed for wisdom and guidance.
They also began talking to friends and strangers–anyone who would listen–about their ideas and the need for what they proposed to do. People seemed interested and some offered support. Hugh began researching fund-raising possibilities. He also secured an attorney and an accountant, both of whom volunteered their services.
One of their biggest decisions at the start was deciding on a name for their project. “It needs to be something that offers people hope,” Mary said.
“Yes! Maybe something like “House of Hope,” or “Hope Place,” or something like that.”
“It can’t sound institutional. We have to avoid giving the impression of something like the old convalescent home back in Cincinnati. This has to be more than just a facility with a program…we want a name that suggests a supportive, nurturing community where handicapped adults live, learn and support each other…and do it with the support of the larger community surrounding them. Now, how can we put a handle on that idea?”
Hugh paused in thought. “Wait a minute! We just said it…”community.” We need to use that word, that idea.” He began to doodle on a pad in front of him. Suddenly he said, “I’ve got it! We’ll call it “Community of Hope.” That says the whole thing–and we can even shorten that to “COHOPE,” in all capital letters.”
Mary felt a visceral response. “That’s it. Couldn’t be a better name!”
From that beginning, Mary and Hugh pursued ways to bring COHOPE into reality. First, they established Community of Hope as a non-profit corporation. Next they explored initial fund-raising options. Hugh decided to start with names from telephone books in the various cities, such as Roanoke, where he traveled on business. This led to long hours developing and printing an appeal letter, and then coding mailing lists.
Throughout their efforts they sought guidance and strength through prayer, and support from family and friends to keep them grounded as they moved forward. Finally the first mailing went out and they waited to see what response would follow.
They didn’t have to wait long. Positive response began to arrive. Hugh found a piece of property north of Harrisonburg on the service road that ran parallel to the interstate highway, and put an option on it. Next they hired an architect to design how the land would be used, including drawings of proposed buildings. They structured a brochure and expanded their mail campaign by purchasing lists geared to a segment of the population that had shown interest in their type of project.
Mary felt overwhelmed as responses to their appeals increased. The house became crowded with the daily influx of mail. They spent hours opening, reading and responding to a growing supportive network. When Hugh came in from his sales trip one week Mary shared an idea with him.
“Honey, I’ve been thinking. Mother and Dad’s trailer is sitting over there across the driveway, empty and unused. Instead of selling it, why don’t we use it as an office? Maybe we can get some order back in the house. What do you think?”
“That’s a great idea!” Hugh went right to work setting things up and soon they transferred all the fun-raising activity to the trailer. Next they hired someone to help in the office. In 1966 Hugh came up with a new idea for building a sense of “community” among the COHOPE supporters.
“I think I’d like to set up a newsletter we could send out on some regular basis, like each quarter, to our contributors.”
“You mean like the church’s monthly newsletter?”
“Something like that…with the latest news on our progress. More than a nuts and bolts thing, though. I’d like to make it more personal. It’s really time to start on the construction phase, and while that’s going on, we can also be developing program ideas. This would be a way to help people feel involved as we go through that process.”
It was a great plan. Hugh developed the newsletter. He titled it the “Newsey Letter,” and wrote in a folksy, down-home style. It caught on quickly. What didn’t go so quickly was moving into the construction phase. There were problems with drainage and zoning. They worked on changes and adjustments for some time, finally deciding to abandon the interstate location.
“So where do we go from here?” Mary asked one day. “How long will it take us to find another location?”
“Maybe we don’t need to do that. How would you feel if we turned over the upper part of our own land and built COHOPE right here?”
It was a sound idea. They owned three-and-a-half acres. The house, shop, and trailer took up less than half their acreage. Hugh was a builder by trade, and his close friend, Marl Clatterbuck, offered to help with construction. They designed a two-story building that could be paced so there was ground-level access to both stories. It would have visibility from the road and with good signage, would be easy for people to find.
Mary agreed with the plan. They acquired all the necessary permits and construction began. Hugh did as much physical work as he could to save on labor, investing himself in it each weekend. The building site was excavated, footings were laid and a concrete slab poured. The front end of the building was built with cinder block walls, and the upper story was frame, with a shingled roof.
The lower level included plumbing and heating equipment, storage, a commercial-style kitchen, and the administrative offices. The upper level housed a dayroom/dining room with a large fireplace, classrooms, several resident rooms and a housemother’s apartment. Large windows were installed to give a view of the Massanutten Peak, and surrounding farm land. Finally, by 1972, ten years after their initial efforts, COHOPE was ready for staff and students to bring it to life.
Paul was one of the first to move in. There were several other residents plus a number of day students who were bused in from the surrounding community each day. Mary worked in the office, and supervised staff hiring, training and operations. At the end of the day, with all her children now out of the nest, she and Hugh had the house to themselves for the first time in thirty-five years.
While walking down the driveway toward the house one evening Mary turned to look back at the COHOPE building. It was alive with people, activity and hope. Yes, it truly is a community of hope, she mused. With a deep shudder of satisfaction, she sighed with a prayer.
Thank you, Lord, for this miracle! It has been such a bold undertaking…now it’s such a satisfying reality. Guide us to always trust you and do our best to make this a place of life and blessing for each person who lives and works here. Amen.
(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter” by Hugh Townsend Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)