Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Kicking off 25 years of hospitality

It is a house where guests come out of sad, painful and often tragic necessity.

They are visitors to this city, here because a loved one is in one of our hospitals. And for nearly 25 years, what is now the Hospitality House of Charlotte has given tens of thousands a free place to lay their head -- and buck up their spirits.

The house has no major corporate sponsor, or help from United Way. It's staffed primarily by volunteers, food is donated by individuals and organizations. They count on support from the Mecklenburg Medical Auxiliary, foundations, church congregations and individuals.

Yet corporate donations are down 80 percent. So Sept. 29, Hospitality House is kicking off its 25th anniversary with its first fundraising "Rise and Shine" breakfast. The celebration will climax in the spring.

"We hear constantly that Hospitality House has been a blessing and a godsend to most of the people who've stayed with us," said Susan Ross, development director. "They are brought to the Charlotte area in often emergency situations, not knowing a soul and not knowing what to do.

"They can't afford to stay in a hotel. We offer them a comfortable place to stay at no cost ... while they're supporting a loved one in the hospital."

The facility has served more than 35,000 people from 49 states and 30 countries. Its need emerged from a 1982 survey of healthcare issues by the Mecklenburg Medical Auxiliary. The city had no shelter for out-of-town families with loved ones in local hospitals. Families were sleeping in hospital waiting rooms or cars, eating food from snack machines and showering in hospital bathrooms so they could stay close.

So the auxiliary set up an endowment and in April 1985, opened a 14-bed facility on Scott Avenue across from Carolinas Medical Center. They called it MMAE's Inn, after the auxiliary endowment, and in 1996 they added 15 beds in a wing of St. John's Baptist Church.

Then last year, Hospitality House opened its new three-story, 22-bedroom home near the old Scott Avenue facility. Most nights, it sleeps the maximum 50.

Still, it eludes notice. This week, Ross and executive director Kimberly Melton are attending a conference of the National Association of Hospital Hospitality Houses in Minnesota.

"Not many people know we exist across the country, or even in the Charlotte area," Ross said. "We're working to change that."

Andre (pronounced: An-DRAY-a) Dill of the rural Bostic community in Rutherford County knows all about Hospitality House.

In June 2008, her late husband Tom was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and suddenly experienced pain in his leg and hip. He was ambulanced to Carolinas Medical Center. His wife knew no one in Charlotte and came with only the clothes she wore that day.

"I wasn't expecting to stay long," she said. "He had an infection -- I thought they'd lance and give him antibiotics."

Tom ended up staying several months. His leg was amputated on July 25, and he remained in the hospital until the following October. Andre was told about Hospitality House the night they arrived, but slept in a waiting room for about five nights. She called a couple nearby hotels, but they were too expensive. So she moved to Hospitality House.

There, she found smiles and welcoming arms -- and a "lovely room with a private bath. It was much more than I ever expected," she said. To earn her keep she swept and mopped floors, vacuumed hallways, as all guests are required to do.

Tom Dill went home in October that year, but had to return to CMC a month later. Ever dutiful, his wife checked back into Hospitality House until Tom died Nov. 29.

"That is such a wonderful place," she said. "I didn't know such kindness existed in this world. The guests hung together as family. I'd never have been able to stay with my husband if it weren't for Hospitality House."

Want to go? The "Rise and Shine of Hospitality House" breakfast starts at 8 a.m. Sept. 29 at Myers Park Country Club. Tickets are $45 and $360 for tables of eight and can be bought until Sept. 23. Michael Tarwater, CEO of Carolinas HealthCare System, will deliver the keynote. To buy tickets contact Susan Ross at 704-376-0060, ext. 2, or email her at sross@hospitalityhouseofcharlotte.org. For more information on the breakfast or the facility click here.