Expanding Hearts and Home

Nov. 18-Dec. 1, 2004
Expanding Hearts and Home
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Sarah House Offers a Haven to Families Whose Lives are in Upheaval

Phyllis Hayes and her daughter Grace arrived in Syracuse Nov. 6 from Davie County, N.C. They drove more than 18 hours, getting lost twice on a journey that was filled with fear, tension and anxiety. Upon arriving in Syracuse, they found their way to Crouse Irving Memorial Hospital where Hayes’ husband lay in the intensive care unit. While traveling through Central New York with a friend, he suffered a medical emergency. His situation is critical and Phyllis Hayes said his recovery would be a long process. “We will stay through all of the surgeries that are scheduled before going back to North Carolina,” said Hayes. “Then we will return as often as possible for the duration of his hospital stay.”

Jane Ferjet of Alexandria Bay was a guest at Sarah House more than 18 times over a five-year period due to her husband’s illness. When she arrived in Syracuse, she was anxious about being in an unfamiliar city. “I’m a country girl. I’ve never been in the city. That was scary,” said Ferjet. Her first stay at Sarah House lasted 16 days. “The first time I walked into Sarah House a stranger greeted me. A friend hugged me when I left and said goodbye.” Ferjet has memories of receiving hugs when she cried, tea when she needed comfort and the smell of warm brownies when she returned from the hospital on cold nights. But most of all, she remembers the unwavering support given by dedicated staff and volunteers. “Every time I came, it was a caring, compassionate and considerate environment,” she said. The year that she was away from her four daughters on Mother’s Day, a volunteer presented her with a dozen roses to commemorate the day.

These are just two examples of the people that the staff and volunteers at Sarah House reach out to each year. Sarah House, named after the biblical Sarah who was the first woman recorded to provide hospitality, is located on Roberts Avenue in Syracuse. The hospitality house offers a port of safety and comfort for out-of-town families whose loved ones are receiving medical care at one of the area hospitals. Sarah House, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary, has provided more than 13,000 nights of shelter to more than 3,000 individuals since it opened. Guests have come from every state in the U.S. with the exception of Wyoming, as well as the countries of Canada, Cuba, Israel and Africa. Sarah House has also offered support and shelter to families from St. Lawrence, Broome, Herkimer, Jefferson and Oneida Counties.

Mary Keough has been the executive director of Sarah House from the beginning. After her children went off to college, Keough planned on entering the work world and instead said this opportunity showed itself at just the right time. “Starting Sarah House was like giving birth,” said Keough. “You start with nothing, don’t know what you’re doing, cry a lot, pray a lot and then the angels start coming.” Those angels are in the form of countless volunteers, patrons and supporters who give of their time, talent, and resources to ensure that Sarah House provides a home-like atmosphere to families facing difficult times.

The home offers kitchen facilities (where the guests are free to prepare meals), laundry facilities, private bedrooms, parking and transportation to and from area hospitals. Patients are also welcomed at Sarah House if room is available and they can care for themselves. Unlike the Ronald McDonald House which houses families of pediatric patients, Sarah House offers support and hospitality to families of adult patients with a variety of medical conditions. The Hayes, like many other guests, learned of Sarah House through a social worker at Crouse Hospital after spending the first two nights in Syracuse in a hotel. Guests also learn about the facility through medical providers, hospital chaplains, pastoral care staff or by word of mouth. Those referrals sometimes result in Keough turning away people in need. The facility can only house eight people at a time –– a fact that hospital staff are aware of. “The hospitals know how small we are and that we are often full,” said Keough. That is soon to change, however. The capacity of Sarah House will be tripled when it gains a portion of the convent located next door. Most Holy Rosary Parish, which owns the properties thought to expand by utilizing the large convent. Pastor Father Fred Mannara said, “For ten years we have had a wonderful neighbor in Sarah House. Now that we will be occupying our 22-bedroom convent with our five sisters, we hope they will be our neighbors without end.”

Through the help of community organizations and volunteers, renovations of the convent will provide three second-floor suites that consist of three bedrooms and a bath, a large community room, kitchen facilities and a meditation room. The first floor will make available two handicaped-accessible bedrooms and bathrooms, office suites, a large kitchen and a community/dining room. Kathy Thomas, a member of the board of directors of Sarah House, is also a business representative for local carpenter union 747. Her union got involved in the renovations for Sarah House through the United Way Agency, which gave her a list of agencies that needed help. “Often organizations need our skills; so instead of giving monetary donations, we donate our manpower,” said Thomas. The original plan for expansion was to build out the back of the existing house. Keough is very enthusiastic about the expansion, especially about having a facility that will be handicapped accessible.

While local carpentry and electrical unions have offered the services of skilled workers, Most Holy Rosary Parish members and local high school and college students have also pitched in to remove old carpeting, clean, paint, and do carpentry work. “Never did we have the dream that we would see it the way it is today,” said Father John Ahern, who was pastor at Rosary Parish when Sarah House was started. “It’s a place where hospitality is not just talked about, but put into practice.” “Sarah House is a wonderful ministry to the hospitalized and their families who are visitors,” added Father Mannara. While Keough’s work is hectic and at times overwhelming because the staff consists of herself and one part-time person, she said that the sense of fulfillment of the job far outweighs the challenges. “You meet people from all walks of life and share the most intimate moments with them,” she said. “This gives us an opportunity to offer them a measure of relief during a time of difficulty. I’ve gotten to meet the best, the most generous people –– those with strong family values. Outside of my own two children, this is what I am most proud of. I refer to Sarah House as my third child.”

One only needs to look around the house to see evidence of the impact Sarah House has made on the guests that have stayed there. Homemade quilts adorn the walls and backs of sofas while cross stitch pictures, paintings and knick-knacks are displayed throughout the rooms. Each family has left a small part of itself behind –– in gratitude and appreciation to those who provided comfort and solace during traumatic times.

For more information about Sarah House, call (315) 475-1747 or visit the website at www.sarahhouse.org.

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