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How Welcome Home of Chattanooga provides care for the terminally ill

Key Takeaways

  • Welcome Home of Chattanooga is one of only two hospice homes in Tennessee.
  • The BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation donated $360,000 to help the organization get started.
  • TeamBlue volunteers decorated the home’s five bedrooms and continue to support the organization.

“I am so happy. There’s nothing I need right now, and I feel so safe.”

Those are the words of a Welcome Home resident who never felt safe anywhere, after living most of her life as a human trafficking victim.

Welcome Home of Chattanooga has provided a safe, caring home for the terminally ill, most of whom are homeless, since 2015. Sherry Campbell, founder and executive director, says, “Whether they’re going to get better or whether they are going to die, every human being just wants to be happy and free of suffering. We can’t take away their suffering, but we can offer them a safe place where they feel loved.”

Though Welcome Home embraces each resident with love and caring, some are unsure how to receive it – at least in the beginning. “It can be difficult transition for someone to be living on the streets and then come into Welcome Home, not being used to having a roof over their head, or even being loved or cared for,” Sherry explains. “We have one current resident who was so shy that he didn’t come out of his room for three weeks. We let him know that we were there for him. He slowly started coming out for meals. Over time, he’s made friends and likes to hang out on the porch with them. Now that he’s come out of his shell, we’ve discovered that he’s one of the funniest residents we’ve had.”

Every resident benefits from such individualized love and caring, Sherry says, and Welcome Home works to show them that they are important and will be remembered.

A small, dedicated village

Sherry (right) with Welcome Home staff members Mahlet Valdez (left) and Michelle Goble (center)

Welcome Home operates out of a five-bedroom house with two full-time staffers and eight part-time workers. Hospice agencies come into the home to provide the professional care, but Welcome Home staff and volunteers provide round-the-clock, family-type care.

Welcome Home

“Our main referral sources are the hospices and hospitals in the area,” Sherry says. Welcome Home also reaches out to the Chattanooga community to partner with the Homeless Healthcare Clinic, the Community Kitchen, various agencies, the faith community, and friends for referrals.

While Welcome Home primarily serves the greater Chattanooga area, it is one of only two hospice homes in the state and has received residents from as far away as Knoxville.

Dinner is one of the big gathering times at Welcome Home. The organization’s dinner club allows families, churches and restaurants to bring a meal to residents one night a month. As a result, nearly every night of the month, Welcome Home has a community dinner, so residents, staff and volunteers can eat together.

Welcome Home has at least one staff member on site 24/7, but it relies on volunteers for a wide range of duties, from housekeeping to companionship for residents.

“Our volunteers may watch TV with residents, or take them on rides,” Sherry says. “We’ve taken them on outings, from thrift store shopping, to fishing, to a visit to the Chattanooga Zoo. I’m a big believer in getting out. I don’t want people to come here and just sit and wait for death to come. If they have something on their bucket list, we’re going to help them do it.”

Adapting to new challenges

Of course, everything at Welcome Home looks a little different today as a result of COVID-19.

The pandemic has impacted the role of volunteers, the delivery of care and community outreach. Welcome Home typically has 40 volunteers helping at the home, but many are older or retired and are quarantining to reduce possible exposure to the virus. As a result, there are now just 10 active volunteers.

Visits to residents have also been reduced during the pandemic. “We have had to restrict the number of people who come into the home,” Sherry says. “We changed the entrance to regulate access so we can perform screenings, including temperature checks. We try to have most visits outside, if possible. It has been a challenge.”

The pandemic has also affected Welcome Home’s annual conference, called Demystifying Death and Dying, which is designed to educate the community and other caregivers. Like many other conferences, it had to be cancelled this year. Sherry hopes to offer it online as a continuing education class to deepen understanding of caring for those with a terminal illness.

Plans to expand, serve more

While 2020 has been a challenging year for Welcome Home, it has also brought opportunity.

“We currently rent our house, and we have a waiting list of eight people, so the need is greater than what we’re able to manage right now,” Sherry says. “We recently purchased a 4.5-acre property where we can create a whole community of caring and healing.”

The state of Tennessee allows a maximum of five residents in its current home, so the new property will enable Welcome Home to build multiple homes of varying sizes to accommodate more residents, with different housing preferences. “We’ve discovered that some people don’t do so well in congregate housing,” Sherry says. “Some of our residents that we’ve served would have done better in a two-bedroom house.”

Sherry Campbell Welcome Home

A partner from the start

Despite its success and planned growth, Welcome Home almost didn’t happen. That changed with a $360,000 grant from the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation.

“I had been in hospice social work for 13 years and, along with a few others, had a dream for creating Welcome Home, but it wasn’t going anywhere,” Sherry explains. “I was getting discouraged and was thinking it would never happen.”

Chelsea Johnson, director of the BlueCross Foundation, called Sherry to deliver the good news about the grant. The phone call was an answered prayer, Sherry says.

 “I just cried and cried, and I said, ‘I am so sorry for not being professional. I just don’t have words to say,’” Sherry recalls. “I remember this, and I’ll remember it until the day I die: Chelsea laughed and said, ‘We just need you to know that we believe in you.’ That was my prayer that morning – ‘I just need You to send someone that believes in us,’ and Chelsea used those very words.”

The service that Welcome Home offers to a vulnerable population in Chattanooga was unique and much needed, Chelsea says.

“The BlueCross Foundation has always been in support of inclusivity and access to care, and Welcome Home fulfills that mission with the care they provide to their special clients each and every day,” she says.

And BlueCross has supported Welcome Home of Chattanooga beyond that initial grant. In preparation for the organization’s opening, TeamBlue volunteers painted and furnished all five bedrooms. Several have continued to volunteer as companions, while others have become regular donors.

“The BlueCross Foundation was the first to step up and say, ‘We believe in what you’re doing and want to help,’” Sherry says.

Today, Sherry’s mission is to continue growing what Welcome Home has started, for both residents and caregivers. “As we go forward, I hope we’re not just able to serve more residents,” she says, “but that we help more people in the community feel more comfortable with caring for those who are dying.”

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