Decorating gingerbread houses: Homeland residents bond with Harrisburg students

Homeland Center resident and Nativity School students decorating gingerbread houses

Homeland resident Janet Kepler and students from Nativity School recently collaborated on decorating gingerbread houses.

Growing up on a farm in Mississippi, Sarah Lewis’ family didn’t have money for anything extravagant like a gingerbread house, but there were always sweets for Christmas.

“In our basket, we always had a big stick of peppermint candy,” she remembers.

Homeland Center residents relived the joys of holidays past when students from The Nativity School of Harrisburg arrived to help them decorate gingerbread houses. Students from the nearby Harrisburg middle school have been coming to Homeland for many years, visiting with residents and joining them in bingo.

On this Tuesday afternoon, though, they adorned gingerbread houses with icing, gumdrops, candy canes, and M&Ms. Their creations will enter their school’s gingerbread house contest, competing among other works submitted by the school’s friends and donors.

The weekly visits to Homeland give students a chance “to give back,” said Nativity School Science Teacher Vernal Simms. The kids may be “hellions outside,” but they are always well-behaved at Homeland, he said.

“They’re giving back to people,” he said. “They like the residents and enjoy coming.”

The boys like visiting so much that two seventh graders – Ty’mir Wilkerson and Anthony Lester — asked to join the group of sixth graders coming to Homeland on this day, Vernal noted.

“It’s fun,” said Anthony. “It shows how you can come and help people.” He likes to help his mom on his own, too, cooking and cleaning around the house.
Ty’mir said he likes “giving back to the older folks for everything they did and everything they gave to us when we were young.”

The Nativity School originated when its founders saw a need for a prep school that could start city boys on a pathway to top high schools and colleges, Simms said. After students graduate from eighth grade, scholarships and tuition assistance is available for those attending private and parochial high schools around the region. Some students choose to attend competitive public high schools dedicated to science and technology or the arts.

Sixth grader Yasir Williams likes meeting the Homeland residents.

“They’re very nice,” he said. “They’re caring. They keep you occupied if you want to take your mind off something.”

Yasir’s classmate Jah’mere Belcher, who plays on The Nativity School’s flag football team, was visiting Homeland for the second time. The residents, he said, are “very nice, very caring, very easy to deal with.”

While residents and boys worked together to decorate gingerbread houses, a debate broke out about whether an animal cracker was a camel or not. The boys squeezed frosting from icing bags to put snow on roofs.

“The boys are enjoying it,” said resident Janet Kepler.

“They’re having a good time,” agreed resident Gloria Walters, a former member of Homeland’s Board of Managers. “That’s what counts.”

Gloria didn’t make gingerbread houses as a kid, but there was always “plenty to eat” during the holidays. She recalled family gatherings after she and her siblings were grown.

“The family would come home, and we’d make a big meal,” she said. “I think it made my mom happy that the kids all came home.”

The residents and boys formed bonds as they built their gingerbread houses. Resident Dolores Soles held the hand of Yasir Williams, saying, “I like this boy.” A new Homeland resident, Terry Hayes, called the visitors “a bunch of nice boys.”

“They do good work,” he said. “They’re very organized. “They work well together and have fun together.”

As the gingerbread house-decorating session ended, Terry left the Diner, Homeland’s unique 1950s-style eatery. The boys had put on their coats and were leaving behind him.

“Nice working with you,” he said to one of the boys.

“Bye, Mr. Terry,” the Nativity School student said. “Nice working with you, too.”

Homeland meals retain their special touch as Head Cook Connie Lewis grooms her successor


Retiree and mentor Connie (l) working with mentee Asia Godbee.

Asia Godbee worried that she hadn’t cut the beef for the day’s dinner correctly, but Connie Lewis stepped into her mentoring role with assurances that she was fine.

“When I cut my strips, I cut them smaller than that,” Connie said. “You cut them thicker than I do, but you did well.”

“Learning process,” Asia conceded.

Before Head Cook Connie Lewis retired on Jan. 31 after 22 1/2 years with Homeland, she worked closely with Asia, passing on her years of knowledge. Though residents and staff alike will miss Connie and the love she put into her dishes, the kitchen is in good hands with Asia, who will continue the tradition of culinary excellence she learned from Connie.

Connie Lewis joined Homeland in 1997. She started as a dietary aide and rose to a cooking position, where she flourished.

In recent years, Homeland employed Asia as Connie’s assistant because an additional person was needed to prepare daily meals while also fulfilling special requests. While a day’s breakfast menu might constitute eggs, waffles, and fruit, residents might request a Thomas’ English muffin or blueberry pancakes, and the Homeland kitchen accommodates.

“We’re unique,” says Asia. “I’ve talked to other people who work in retirement homes, and all the residents get the same meal every day.”

“We cater to the residents,” adds Connie. And that, says Asia, was the first thing she learned about working at Homeland.

A Harrisburg High School student completing a project on elder care, Asia first came to Homeland five years ago. Before graduation, she worked the evening shift part-time in the Dietary Department. Asia switched to day shift after graduation, learning the various positions within the department and eventually became Connie’s assistant.

Working with Connie and day cook Doretha Smith, Asia has learned everything from proper techniques for putting pans in the oven to the correct order of lasagna layers, and from strict procedures for food allergies to timing the preparation of each dish.

“If we don’t make something the right way, the residents will know,” Asia says.
Connie is looking forward retiring but says she hopes to keep working part-time, perhaps in-home health care. She looks forward to sleeping in; however, she says she will miss the residents.

“I’m going to miss their faces,” she says. “I’m going to have to come back to see everyone.”

Homeland prepares residents’ meals from scratch — including Connie’s famous macaroni and cheese, always a hit at Homeland’s annual holiday party. The kitchen staff carves up the daily meats.

Connie says she worked in the Homeland kitchen for about five years before she felt fully in command of the process – and says she learned from every mistake. She has transmitted that philosophy to Asia, who admits to the day she curdled the milk for the alfredo sauce – twice – because the kitchen’s high-powered kettles heat rapidly.

Asia knows she gets the benefit of the doubt because she’s learning.

“I like cooking,” she says. “I like learning. It’s interesting learning different techniques from different people and putting my own touch to it.”

Resident Geoffrey Davenport, who worked most of his life in family restaurants, said he’s sorry to see Connie leaving but is happy for her retirement.

“She’s excellent,” he says. Even when she’s not in the kitchen, she’s in the dining room, dishing out food or serving residents at their tables.

“Sometimes, chefs think that serving the food is beneath them, but she’s very willing to do that,” he says.

As Connie hands over the mantle, what are her hopes for Asia?

“Longevity and success,” she says. “Asia brings kindness to her role and always puts the well-being of residents first.”

As for the lessons Asia learned from Connie?

“I gained her strength in aspect,” Asia says. “When she prepares dishes, she knows what she’s doing, and she’s solid. That’s how I want to get, to be confident in my meal, so I can look at it and say I produced a good meal.”

“And she has,” interjects Connie. “She produces good meals.”

Resident Bob Fultz feels at home in Homeland

Shirley and Bob Fultz together at Homeland Center

Shirley and Bob Fultz, together at Homeland Center.

Bob Fultz gestures toward the residents and staff of Homeland’s Ellenberger unit, including his wife and childhood sweetheart, Shirley.

“This is my family,” he says.

Family is important to Bob, who is the oldest of five siblings and has eight children of his own. After an active life of camping, fishing, hunting, Scouting, and service to other people, now he is enjoying his days at Homeland, with Shirley and all the new friends he has made.

Homeland’s Ellenberger unit is staffed by employees specially trained to help those with advancing memory impairment. The staff works with residents and their families to develop a comprehensive, customized plan of care taking each resident’s interests and abilities into consideration.

Bob and Shirley came to Homeland in October 2017. He loves the art and exercise classes and the songs they sing every day. In the display box outside his room, where residents’ families post photos and mementos of their parents’ younger selves, there’s a letter opener that Bob whittled – a skill he learned from his father.

Bob Fultz and his daughter Kathy enjoying one of their regular visits at Homeland

Bob and his daughter Kathy enjoying one of their regular visits at Homeland.

Kathy Yiengst, Bob’s oldest daughter, says the staff makes Homeland unique.

“I love it here. They’re all so friendly,’’ Kathy says. “All you have to do is say you need something, and they work with you.”

Bob agrees.

“This is a great place,” he says. “It’s like home.”

Bob was born in Snyder County, Pennsylvania, a rural area north of Harrisburg. His father was a supervisor with the WPA. His mother kept busy keeping the children out of trouble, which wasn’t always easy. Bob tells the story of the day he and his younger brother, Bill, were practicing their rope-tying skills.

Bill issued a challenge. He bet that Bob couldn’t escape if he tied him up. Bob accepted the challenge and let Bill tie his hands and feet. Then Bill scampered up a tree with the rope and was preparing to – yes – hoist up his brother.

As Bob wrote in his memoirs, “My mother heard the commotion outside and came out to find Bill trying to hang me. She warmed his little behind and saved the day.”

When Bob was in eighth grade, the family moved to Lancaster County, where Bob and his siblings attended school at a one-room schoolhouse. In wintertime, Bob’s assignment was climbing through the window every morning before anyone arrived to turn on the heat.

“I wish they had assigned me a key to the front door,” he jokes today.

At that schoolhouse, Bob met Shirley Barbour.

“We became sweethearts right away,” he says.

One day, while riding his bicycle to a Scout meeting, he took a detour to Shirley’s house. That continued for a few weeks, until Bob’s father got a letter from the Scoutmaster, asking why Bob was no longer coming. Shown the letter, Bob confessed the truth. His daughter, Kathy, finishes the story.

“I don’t think my dad missed Scouts anymore after that,” she says.

Bob enlisted in the U.S. Navy Reserve at 17 years old. He and Shirley got engaged – on Valentine’s Day — at Valentine’s Diner, where she worked. He graduated from high school in 1952, and they got married in 1953.

Fultz children gather with their parents at Homeland Center

Fultz children gather with their parents at Homeland Center.

Bob wanted a big family. He and Shirley had three girls and five boys. Just like their dad, the family enjoyed the outdoors, camping and taking trips to the shore. They lived in different places, ending in Grantville for 25 years.

Bob worked as an electrician, on commercial construction sites and in his own business. He still loved Scouting, so he became a Scoutmaster. He and Shirley taught their kids about the importance of giving back. As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, they were deeply involved in service to others.

The family had a big garden, growing all sorts of vegetables and fruit – apples, peaches, strawberries. The kids learned to can and preserve their bounty, and to this day, Kathy makes applesauce from apples she buys at an orchard near her home in Dillsburg.

“I never eat regular applesauce,” she says. “Homemade is too good. I make it and bring it here for the staff at Ellenberger, and they love it.”

2020 Homeland Calendars available – the gift that keeps giving!


A Homeland Center Lottery Calendar is truly a gift that keeps giving – to its owner as well as the community!

The $25 collected from each calendar benefits Homeland’s benevolent care fund, and calendar owners have a chance to win $30 daily prizes and between $50 to $100 on 24 special days throughout the year.

To order your 2020 Lottery Calendar, please go to (sold out) or contact Ed Savage at or 717-221-7885.

Thank you for your support!