One Step at a Time

( Author’s Note:  This is Chapter 21 in my Dairyman’s Daughter manuscript drafts.  My last posting several weeks ago was titled, “A Bold Undertakomg,” and described Mary and her husband Hubert building a residential school for developmentally disabled adults called Community of Hope, Inc. (COHOPE).  This chapter moves the story  forward as COHOPE goes into daily operation.)


Bible study at COHOPE

(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)

The only way to take on a bold venture is to handle it one step at a time.  Each day became part of a learning curve for Mary and Hugh as they launched COHOPE into daily operation. Encountering constant challenges tested their resolve, and opened them to new talents they hadn’t realized they possessed.

Once they had things going, the challenge was to make the facility visible.  They reached out to the community by extending invitations for groups to visit, get to know the students, and experience a brief time in their lives.

“So, what do y’all do out here?” asked the leader of a visiting church group from a nearby town.

Mary told them about Paul’s experience with CP, and how she and Hugh had come to start COHOPE.  “For most resident’s, this is their first experience living away from home.  We work with each individual’s personal circumstances and needs.  We want to develop a trusting relationship that will allow them to feel comfortable, so they can benefit from what we offer.  I think you’ll see how that works as we go along.”

They were standing outside the rear entrance on the upper level of the building.  Mary opened a double door, motioning them inside to a wide hallway lined with doors. “We’ll start with one of our resident rooms,” she said outside a door decorated with artwork and the name of a female occupant whom Mary said was not in at the time.

 The group filed inside.  A warm glow greeted them as sunshine brightened the room through a double window that looked across a field toward the Massanutten Mountain peak.  Bird feeders and landscaping outside the window seemed to bring the outdoors inside.  There was a quilt on the bed, pictures on the walls, and other furnishings the resident had brought with her.  

“As you can see, we do everything we can to make this feel like home.”

Mary gestured toward a large bathroom with a tile floor next to a walk-in closet. In place of a door was a curtain that could be drawn for privacy.  Everything was designed around the needs of someone in a wheelchair.  Even the shower entrance was barrier free.

“It must take several staff members to care for each person,” remarked one of the visitors.  “Isn’t that expensive?”

“Yes, it is…but that goes along with what this facility is all about.  As you know, we’re funded by donations, grants, and bequests.  It takes a lot to meet each day’s expenses, and no gift is ever too small.  Hugh and I take no salary for our work.”

The group members posed more questions as they left the room and moved down the hall toward a dayroom.  With its comfortably rustic furnishings, the room almost felt like a mountain lodge.  To their left was a fireplace framed by double windows.  To their right was a door with a sign indicating it accessed a staircase leading to the lower level. A large mural depicted a peaceful lake scene, and a door next to the mural offered entrance to another room.

 Directly across from them was a refrigerator, sink, and kitchen-style cabinets.  Mary explained how meals were prepared on the lower level and delivered upstairs by use of a dumbwaiter.  A long, wheelchair-accessible table dominated much of the space where they stood.  There was also a piano, and a nurse’s station.  An audio tape was playing soft music in the background.  The linoleum floor was spotlessly clean.  A faint aroma of food being prepared drifted up to them.

Mary went on with her expanations.  “Our housemothers and aides handle housekeeping duties, and each staff member has been trained to assist those who need help with eating.  You may have noticed the housemother’s door back up the hall when we came in.  We feature ‘family’ activities here in this room, and once each month a Christian man comes in to lead a Bible study.  We believe he is planting seeds that will be a blessing to our students now, as well as when they move on from here.”

People nodded and talked among themselves as they walked around  “You didn’t say anything about this,” said one woman, pointing to the nurse’s station.  “I don’t see a nurse…do you have one?”  

“No, but we can get instant access to medical assistance if needed.  Our staff members are all trained to give first aid, and to assess needs beyond that.  The housemothers make sure the residents get their medications.”

“So, how much staff do you have?”

“There are two housemothers who rotate three days on and three off.  If something prevents one of them coming in, I fill in for her.  There are two housemother aides who also work three days on and three off.  Two orderlies come in early to get the male residents up and ready for breakfast, and then drive one of the vans to pick up day students.  We also have two cooks who rotate shifts, and two people in the office.”

“Wow!  This is all so complex, how did you and your husband learn to set up and manage all of it?”

“Hugh is good at organizing.  He’s a problem-solver and a builder.  He knows how to put things together.  We also prayed, and did a lot of reading and research.  It’s been a one-step-at-a-time process, and we have trusted God to show us the way.  He’s never failed us.”

“It sounds to me like this is your whole life,” said one of the women.

“It is!  It’s just like parenting…it’s full-time work.  Actually, it’s not work at all.  It’s a way of life.  We live in our own house and our children and grandchildren come to visit. They all love coming up to COHOPE, and our residents love having them.”

“Hmmm.  Seems like a lot of work, and expense for such a small number of people,” noted another group member.  “How many residents do you have?”

“At present we have four of the six residents we are equipped to handle, and seven day students.  So we have room to grow.  We take our time with each new person, getting to know them, and helping them get acclimated.   I’m sure you noticed the two large vans outside when you arrived.  We bus our day students in and take them home each day. And, we have a waiting list, so we know there’s a great need for what we offer.”

Next Mary took the group into the classroom beyond the mural wall.  There were tables, cabinets for different purposes, blackboards, and bookshelves.  The room was wallpapered and the windows had drapes to match the decor.   A closed door connected to another room where a class was in progress.

“What do you teach?”

“We do speech therapy, physical therapy, and academic classes.  It’s all one-on-one, geared to each person’s unique circumstances and needs.  We’re beginning to work with the speech therapy department at Madison College.  They send students to work with us as interns.  We learn from them, and they receive practical experience from us. Plus, Madison is in touch with new innovations that could help all of our students.”

After Mary knocked on the classroom door, the group was invited inside for a brief visit.  The students seemed delighted with the attention they were getting.  This was the heart-warming part of the day’s experience.  Mary’s son, Paul, was working with his teacher at a nearby table.  He squealed with delight and strained to get out a greeting…”Come…in….”   

“This is my son, Paul,” Mary said, then added in a teasing manner, “always wanting to steal the show.”  Paul and the others laughed, and he said, “Yee-a-ah!”  He was working with an intern who was teaching him to blow through a straw in order to use a special electronic typewriter.  

“This is a newly-developed machine that is still somewhat experimental.  We’re finding out whether people who can’t control their hands can learn to compensate by this method.”  It took an enormous effort as Paul blew, and then the machine responded and a typed letter emerged on a sheet of paper.  Mary introduced the other students, giving each one a chance to shine for a moment.  

“I hope we haven’t taken too much of your time,” said one of the group members.

“Oh, no,” said the intern.   “You haven’t bothered us at all.  One of our goals is to learn how to be comfortable with who we are among people we don’t know.  We’re glad you came.”

Leaving the room, they went down the staircase they had seen earlier to the lower level where Mary showed them the office.  It was filled with file cabinets, office machines, desks, papers…a busy place.  A typist looked up from her work and flashed a welcoming smile.  A bookkeeper smiled from another desk.  “Hi!”

Mary introduce everyone.  “Here’s where we keep all of our records, and generate the monthly “Newsey Letter,” she said.  “When we first started fund-raising, Hugh dreamed up a monthly letter to stay in touch with our donors, and to attract new support.  He writes it in a folksy, homespun style that people like.”

Leaving the office, the group noted the laundry room, and then entered a large kitchen filled with commercial-sized equipment–two stoves, a refrigerator, and sink.  There was a large pantry stocked with food products, and a cook was preparing supper.  She  explained how they prepared the meals, and showed them how she raised hot food to the day room on the dumbwaiter.  

It was getting late, so the group went back to where their tour had begun.  Mary answered ore questions and gave them each materials they could take home.

“If you alreadmy support us, we thank you,” she said, smiling.  “If not, we hope you’ll consider a gift–and please, we’d appreciate it if you’d tell others about who we are and what we’re doing.  We invite you to be “in step” with us.  The way we’ve gotten this far, and the only way forward from here, is by taking one-step-at-a-time.”

(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter,” by Hugh Townsend Harris, based on “Remembering” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)














One thought on “One Step at a Time

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s