Sarah House celebrates 15 years of supporting families and friends of the sick

By Claudia Mathis
SUN staff writer

Photos by Paul Finch

Sarah House, located on the west side of Syracuse, celebrated its 15th anniversary on May 15 with an open house. Close to 50 people were present that day, enjoying tours of the residence in addition to breakfast, a luncheon and o’dourves in the afternon. “It’s a significant time in our lives,” said Mary Keough, executive director of Sarah House. “We’ve come a long way.”

Sarah House is a hospitality house which provides shelter and support in a home-like setting to patients and families seeking medical treatment in Syracuse area hospitals. In addition, transportation to and from the hospitals is provided to guests who need it.

The establishment of Sarah House began as a dream of Keough. In the summer of 1992, as Keough and her husband, Dick, were walking in their neighborhood, they encountered Father John Ahern, who told them about a vacant house that belonged to Most Holy Rosary Parish. When Father Ahern asked them if they knew of any ways in which the house could be utilized, Mary thought it would be a good idea to house the families of hospitalized patients. Mary’s nephew, Billy Johnson, had recently received a bone marrow transplant in New Hampshire and her sister and brother-in-law had needed a place to stay during the three-month treatment period.

With Billy as their inspiration, a loan was secured to complete the critical repair work to get the residence ready. Volunteers from the community worked numerous hours to renovate Sarah House. They sanded the floors, repaired walls and painted and decorated the house.

In January 1994, Sarah House officially opened to the public. The house was a four-bedroom colonial home. Each bedroom was comfortably furnished, as was the kitchen.

On Oct. 13, 1995, the inspiration behind Sarah House died, after eight years of battling leukemia. Billy was 30 years old at the time.

In 2003, a group of contractors from Local 747 of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners offered to help convert one-half of Most Holy Rosary’s convent into a new facility to accommodate Sarah House.

The new facility was opened next door to the old Sarah House in 2005. The home provides 11 bedrooms, including two handicapped accessible on the first floor; two kitchens; five bathrooms with one handicapped accessible on the first floor; one family room; one dining room; two living rooms; a library with a computer and Internet access and two laundry rooms, one on each floor.

Keough said that Sarah House has provided shelter and support to over 7,000 individuals since its opening. “It’s crucial to be able to offer the support and shelter of Sarah House,” she said. “The need is greater now and will continue to grow in the future. We’re beginning to see more patients and families from every county in New York State.” Sarah House welcomes guests from all medical facilities, including rehabilitation centers, nursing homes and other health care facilities. Many guests staying at Sarah House live in the northern region of the state. Guests have come from all over the U.S., in addition to Canada, Cuba, Israel, Africa and the United Kingdom.

Guests are limited to immediate family members or support persons of the hospitalized patient. Patients are also welcome at Sarah House when room is available and if they are able to care for themselves. Guests are usually referred to Sarah House by social workers, chaplains, patient relations staff or pastoral care staff at the medical facilities. A $15 per night donation is requested, however, the services of Sarah House are free or reduced to those in need, depending on individual circumstances.

Keough said that the support offered at Sarah House alleviates some of the stress that comes with having a loved one who is hospitalized away from home for an extended period of time. Family members need a safe place to stay, a sympathetic heart when the going gets tough, a friendly listener and a shoulder to lean on. Sarah House provides a place that feels like home, warm and caring.

Monte Durnal, a contractor from Dallas, Texas., has been staying at Sarah House since Jan. 5. While traveling in San Diego on a business trip, Durnal received a telephone call informing him that his father was in Crouse Irving Hospital in Syracuse and in a coma due to a bite from a tick. Durnal’s father has since recovered from the tick bite, but is now suffering from complications from a bed sore infection. Durnal left his family and business behind in Texas to lend support to his hospitalized father. A social worker at the hospital referred him to Sarah House.

“I’ve always had a plan for everything,” Durnal said. “This kind of stuff threw me off. It makes you develop your trust in God. It’s hard for us to ask for God’s help and to trust and completely rely on Him when you are a very independent person. This has been a growing experience. It’s changed me because I’ve never asked for help before. When you cut yourself off from family and your finances, you rely on others and God.”

Durnal said that everyone at Sarah House has gone out of their way to be helpful and courteous to him. “It’s been an incredible experience,” he said. “There’s a common thread between us all at Sarah House. I’d like to be able to do something like this when I go back home.”

Laura Struback, a member of Jesuit Volunteer Corps, serves as guest advocate and volunteer coordinator at Sarah House. She is in charge of a core group of 10 volunteers at the facility. The volunteers donate their time to drive people back and forth to the hospitals, cook, clean and maintain the grounds outside the home, among other things.

Keough is extremely grateful for the efforts of the volunteers. “I started this house with a great deal of faith,” Keough said. “We’ve been blessed enormously.” She cited the example of how Ben Nichols, a volunteer from Bellevue Heights United Methodist Church in Syracuse, mows the lawn and cares for the flowers surrounding the home every Tuesday. “He’s a beautiful human being,” said Keough.

Keough also appreciates the efforts of volunteer Rita Stewart. “She really goes way out of her way to help out,” said Keough. “She’s driven two to three hours to take people home and she’s helped people plan funerals.”

Stewart, who writes the newsletter and records guest data, said her time spent at Sarah House has been very rewarding and meaningful. “I’ve made so many friends,” Stewart said. “It makes me feel so good to hear them thank me for picking them up at the hospital. It helps me in my own trials and tribulations. The beauty you see in these people is inspiring.”

Manessa Ferguson and her family were sleeping in the Intensive Care Unit waiting room at University Hospital in Syracuse before she found out about Sarah House. Ferguson is from Boise, Idaho and was called to Syracuse after her 23-year-old daughter, Tara Armer, was in an accident on May 23. Armer, the only survivor of the accident, is paralyzed and in a drug-induced coma. With barely enough money to travel to Syracuse, Ferguson said she  was very grateful to have a place to sleep and take a shower. “Sarah House is a blessing,” she said. “We’re thankful for the help and support from the staff and volunteers.”

Sarah House is named after the Old Testament’s Sarah. Sarah, the wife of Abraham, was known for her kindness, patience and hospitality. Sarah House provides a welcome respite for those who wait by a sick bed and for those who wait endless hours and days for test results and treatments.

Keough said that Sarah House is not federally-funded and its budget is very small — one third or less of what other facilities’ budgets are. “We do a lot with very little,” she said. The home gladly accepts donations and the services of volunteers.

For more information about Sarah House, call (315) 475-1747.

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