Family House Diaries: Charles and Patsy Harrison

Thursday, September 23, 2010 — Labors of love often involve food, and a Chapel Hill couple’s life-long love of cooking and commitment to volunteering fuels them to nourish body and soul for complete strangers twice a month.


Labors of love often involve food, and a Chapel Hill couple's life-long love of cooking and commitment to volunteering fuels them to nourish body and soul for complete strangers twice a month.

Written by Elizabeth Swaringen for UNC Health Care

CHAPEL HILL, NC — Labors of love often involve food, and a Chapel Hill couple’s life-long love of cooking fuels them to nourish body and soul for complete strangers twice a month.

Since January 2009 on the first and third Tuesdays of every month, Charles and Patsy Harrison and a team of family and friends voluntarily cook dinner for patients and their families residing at SECU Family House, the 40-bedroom hospital hospitality house minutes from UNC Hospitals.  Family House provides comfortable, convenient and affordable housing for seriously ill adult patients and their family member caregivers.

“We were pretty nervous the first time we did it,” said Charles, 57.  “We know how to cook, but we didn’t know how to go into a room of strangers and lift them up.  But we should not have worried.  The patients and their families are the ones who do the lifting up.  My goal every week is to walk away smiling at the end of the evening.  So far, that’s not been a challenge.”

Adds Patsy, 56, “If you don’t feel the spirit of God in that place, you never will.  We come away with a renewed spirit every time we go.”

The Harrisons’ legendary menus focus on the comfort of Southern fare:  pork barbecue, grilled pork tenderloin, flank steak, fried chicken and Cajun-seasoned catfish. The theme continues with the sides, which Patsy coordinates and helps prepare with the support of the team. Depending on the main entrée there’s cole slaw, potato salad, collards, corn casserole, hush puppies, seasoned fries, macaroni and cheese.  Home-made desserts, and iced tea, both sweet and unsweetened, complete the spread.

Sign-up sheets for the Harrisons’ dinners attract 40 to 50 SECU Family House residents.  The aroma from Charles’ on-site cooking outdoors draws in those who forgot to sign up.  Light-hearted conversations begin easily and naturally as men gravitate outdoors to the grill or fryer and women congregate in the kitchen.

Food is arranged buffet-style for self-service.  With plates filled, diners take their seats, sometimes with new-found friends they’ve made at SECU Family House, other times with strangers who become fast friends. Table size and arrangement varies so if someone prefers to dine alone, that’s an option, too.

Once all guests fill their plates, members of Team Harrison fill theirs, disperse themselves among the tables and the cacophony of fellowship begins.

“You can tell when people need and want to talk,” Patsy said, “and you can tell when people want and need to be by themselves.  It’s a safe place for patients and their families to share and let loose what they are thinking and feeling.  We’ve heard some very sad stories, but there is a spirit of gratitude that permeates and rises above it all.”

And the opportunity to volunteer at SECU Family House came at a time when the Harrisons needed their own uplift.

Charles was laid off from a 31-year banking career in December 2008.  The very next Sunday “Feeding People” was the sermon at their church, University United Methodist.  It was the sign Charles and Patsy, a retired second-grade teacher, needed for the next chapter in their lives. 

“Our daughter, Ashley, signed us up to cook one night a month at Family House beginning that January,” Charles said.  “It was the three of us, and we cooked for about 25 people.  We walked out of there after that first night with tears in our eyes and said ‘once a month is not enough’.”

As word spread about their good work, friends and family joined in.  A cousin, who’s a freshman at High Point University, arranged her classes so that she can continue supporting the team. 

In addition to those regularly scheduled Tuesday night dinners, the Harrisons also cooked the first Thanksgiving dinner at SECU Family House last Nov. 26, which also was Ashley’s 29th birthday.  About 100 people were present to count their blessings over eight turkeys and all the fixings. Seasonal tablecloths and flowers rounded out the celebration. 

“It was the best birthday present I could have had,” said Ashley, who was pregnant with daughter Addison, now eight months old. “My husband, Ronstadt, usually doesn’t get to help us on Tuesdays because of his work, but was able to be here for Thanksgiving and witness firsthand the joy I’ve experienced since Mom and Dad and I cooked that first night.”

Team Harrison is already booked to cook the Thanksgiving 2010 meal, too.

“My brother, Cary, invited us to spend the holiday at his new house in Florida,” Charles said.  “As badly as I’d like to go, I had to tell him I already have other plans.”

The Harrisons are among hundreds of volunteers who have helped make SECU Family House the ideal home-away-from-home for 1,025 patients or patient families so far in 2010.  To learn more about volunteer opportunities, contact Janet Hudgens, director of marketing and volunteers, at janet@secufamilyhouse.org or 919-932-8009.

Media contact: Tom Hughes, (919) 966-6047, tahughes@unch.unc.edu

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