While living in the tent villages of Chattanooga's 11th Street homeless camps, Mark Adams found himself in a violent altercation that landed him in the hospital. But that wasn't the worst of it.
During his stay, Adams received news of a terminal cancer diagnosis. Yet, without a permanent address, he was unable to access the medical treatment he desperately needed.
This is where Welcome Home of Chattanooga and long-time volunteer Geraldyne North enter the picture.
Founded in 2015, Welcome Home serves as a hospice for the terminally-ill homeless, offering them the love and support they've often lacked in their lives. North, a dedicated volunteer since its inception, puts in an average of four hours per week, sometimes more — always with her special brand of kindness and enthusiasm.
"Everybody is so happy when they see her white Honda pull up the driveway," says Welcome Home founder, Sherry Campbell. "With her big smile and colorful clothes — she makes everybody smile when they see her show up.
"Geraldyne has been with us from the beginning, through the pandemic, through everything. She is nurturing and compassionate and kind — everything we want Welcome Home to be."
While most would consider the work being done at Welcome Home to be emotionally taxing, North says she leaves feeling buoyant and happy — excited to do the work she loves to do. The entire staff strives to create a homey atmosphere, assisting with grocery shopping, laundry, preparing meals, and ensuring the residents have the basics they need, including love and appreciation.
When North reflects on her time with Welcome Home, she thinks maybe she's really learned more about Jesus than she has about herself. When Adams first arrived, "he was cursing in paragraphs," North says. His words were so upsetting, she wondered if she could continue working with him.
"I would kind of say a prayer each day before I got to him. I didn't say anything to him about it, but he knew most of us didn't like his language," she remembers. "And eventually, it just started to ease off."
Since that time, North and Adams have become best buds.
Adams says he cherishes North's friendship. He looks forward to their conversations and outings to Walmart, thrift stores, doctor's appointments and the grocery store. And that love is reciprocated by North, who says she looks forward to their visits as well.
Welcome Home receives referrals primarily from hospitals, other hospices, and the Chattanooga Tumor Clinic. They also have a social worker who visits the homeless tent camps and health care clinics, offering assistance to those in need.
At present, the hospice has five acres in East Chattanooga with two buildings, and plans for a third. They provide care to seven individuals — four living in their main building and three participating in the cancer respite program.
They also have six graduates who have transitioned to off-campus housing. For these residents, Welcome Home offers continued assistance in helping them secure permanent housing.
"We have people who have come here who are dying and — surprise — when your basic needs are being met and you're reminded you're important and that you are loved and care for — you get better," says Campbell. "We never expected all that, but it does happen. And we work to find them permanent housing because we feel like, for them to go back to living outdoors would be a death sentence.
"People who are living outdoors tend to die about 10 years younger than those of us who are sheltered — so we feel like this is life saving."
What do you do for relaxation/to beat stress?
I enjoy walking in one of the nearby parks where there are many trees. I also attend yoga about four times a week, and enjoy reading and writing. My favorite thing is travel, both domestic and international.
What led you to become a volunteer?
I became a regular volunteer after retiring. I'd worked my entire adult life and sitting at home watching television was not appealing to me. Both of my parents were volunteers — my mother with our school and church, and my father with the veteran organizations — so we were taught to serve without pay in areas that benefited the community and that were fulfilling for our physical and mental well-being. Due to life-changing losses and the emotional and physical pain, and nowhere to turn, I promised myself to be of more service to others than was available to me. I also earned a certification in Death, Dying and Life-Changing Losses in 1998.