WORDS BY M. DIANE MCCORMICK
Friendless. What does it mean to you? Not finding anyone to play The Legend of Zelda with on a Saturday night? Arriving for happy hour five minutes after your pals have left?
Sure, that works, but imagine living in an unpaved, horse-drawn town of 14,000. You’re too young or too old or too poor to find your own food and shelter. The father, son or husband who once provided for your needs died in the War Between the States.
Did we mention that government and social services are rare, and there are whole swaths of you scrounging to survive in the wake of the Civil War?
You truly are “friendless,” almost in a legal sense. So, where do you turn?
In November 1866, the women of nine Harrisburg churches decided something had to be done. On May 8, 1867, the Home for the Friendless received its charter from the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas. Its first residents, say surviving documents, were “three old ladies and a little girl” living in rented quarters.
Today, the original “Home for the Friendless” plaque greets visitors at what’s now known as Homeland Center. It’s hard to believe that anything can last 150 years, but that’s what happens when a never-ending need meets an institution’s ability to adapt with changing times.
In case you don’t know it or have driven past and wondered, Homeland Center is a continuing-care retirement community. Take a detour from Sixth Street in Uptown Harrisburg, and you’ll see Homeland’s signature, original brick building at Fifth and Muench streets.
From that spot, additions radiated outward. The dramatic Dorothy S. Hollinger Conservatory, built in 2007, greets passersby on Sixth Street. Transformative wings added in the 20th Century met the growing need for medical and nursing care for the elderly. Today, Homeland is home – and “home” is exactly the atmosphere that staff and volunteers strive for – to 50 people living in personal-care suites, 71 in skilled-care and 24 in the Ellenberger Unit for dementia and Alzheimer’s care.
From the beginning, women have formed the beating heart of Homeland. In 1867, seven men who formed the board of trustees were awarded the charter. Those men oversaw the venture’s legalities and financial aspects.
In the meantime, the nine churches involved offered two women each to a “Board of Lady Managers.” The women found the site in a sparsely settled part of the city. To raise money, they organized popular entertainments of the day, including parlor theatricals, “wax works” of locals portraying such familiar characters as Red Riding Hood and a Christmastime “Wonder Room” featuring miniature landscapes and a Christmas tree brimming with toys available for purchase.
Women had little standing in the 19th Century and well into the 20th, but don’t confuse their lack of legal status with powerlessness. In Harrisburg and nationwide, smart, capable and well-off women channeled their innate organizational and creative talents into community work and institution-building.
The guiding light of the Home for the Friendless was Eliza Haldeman, the daughter and widow of ironmasters who was quite iron-willed herself. According to an excellent history of Homeland written by Eileen Church in 2002, the 80-year-old Haldeman insisted on turning the first spade at groundbreaking of the building in 1871.
Today, men and women comprise the board of trustees that guides business and policy decisions, while the energetic, all-women board of managers – still 18 members strong – puts the “home” in Homeland.
You’ll spot them around the facility. They visit residents. They might host a picnic with a live swing band in Homeland’s picturesque garden. They once delivered a favorite treat to residents by bringing a French-fries truck to the parking lot.
Homeland is familiar to Harrisburg Magazine readers as a five-time “Simply the Best Long-Term Care Facility” selection. Of perhaps greater import for residents, it is one of Central Pennsylvania’s few facilities to repeatedly earn Medicare’s top Five-Star rating, which is, according to President and CEO Barry S. Ramper, II, harder to hold than attain.
Ramper expects nothing less than excellence in customer service from employees, as attentive as Disney resort staff. One resident fears asking for anything she needs because she knows that staffers will go out of their way to get it. Employees, in turn, remain loyal to Homeland, keeping turnover low. They love hearing the residents’ stories and knowing that they’re delivering comfort to people in their twilight years.
In the 1970s, as city fortunes declined, Homeland officials decided to stay and commit to the area. That decision launched a wave of growth in facility and services that has given Homeland a significant economic impact. Today, 85 percent of employees live within a five-mile radius. Forty percent come from the Uptown area, from Forster Street to Division.
As befits anything that can survive seven score and 10 years, Homeland doesn’t resist change but embraces it. Homeland Hospice was founded in 2008. In 2016, Homeland launched two new home-based services – Homeland HomeCare, for help with the tasks of everyday living, and Homeland HomeHealth, offering doctor-ordered medical assistance.
Homeland’s 150th anniversary gala, May 7, at Hilton Harrisburg, benefits its Benevolent Care, which assures that no resident is ever evicted for running out of money.
Eliza Haldeman and her “Board of Lady Managers” would approve.