Friendly voices, listening ears: Homeland receptionists offer a human touch


In the age of automation, Homeland Center puts real people at the front desk. Ask them a question, and they’ll find the answer. Stop to chat, and they’ll find the time to listen.

“One of the greatest things about having people at the desk instead of a machine is that people will ask you almost anything that’s on their mind,” said second-shift receptionist Ron Clark. “Sometimes, they’re having a bad day, and you try to uplift their spirits.”

Meet the four devoted people who staff the receptionist’s desk, watching the phones and the doors as they play their part in sustaining Homeland’s renowned homelike feel.

Ron Clark, evenings

Ron Clark has lived through a few adventures, like the time he snatched a shotgun from a man pointing it at him and future Harrisburg Police Chief Thomas Carter. In a long career, he has worked in security and law enforcement in the U.S. Marines, as a Pennsylvania state constable, and security at hospitals and in higher education.

With his keen instincts, he keeps an eye on the door, even as he befriends residents and their families.

He has grieved with families and residents who have lost loved ones. He listens to the tales of veterans. He considers time with Homeland staff “a shared gift,” as they forge bonds and develop teamwork.

“The residents, they open up to me,” Ron says. “Some of the stories they tell me are overwhelmingly enjoyable. People come from all different types of life. I love to read, but I learn more from people on the streets than I’ve ever learned from a book.”

Carol Mitchell, days

Carol Mitchell is a good listener and empathizer because she knows all about the lives that Homeland residents have lived.

“I have been everywhere these folks have been,” she says. “I’m a mom. I’ve been a single mom. Now I’m a senior citizen myself.”

Carol first worked in Homeland activities, under the supervision of her daughter, former Activities Director Gillian Sumpter. Now, getting the hang of the front desk has been “a beautiful journey.”

Carol is retired from Harrisburg’s Hamilton Health Center, where she discovered a passion for teaching women, especially women of color, the benefits of breastfeeding. She trained to become a lactation counselor and worked with Harrisburg Hospital to establish a support program for breastfeeding mothers.

At Homeland, she works “the other end of the life spectrum.” When family members call, she does her best to help.

“There’s nothing worse than saying, ‘I don’t know how your mom is,’” she says. “Nine times out of 10, we don’t know, but we can suggest they call back at a certain time to reach the nurse. At least we can give them a goal.”

Staffing the front desk shows Homeland’s commitment to personalized service, Carol believes.

“I know I feel good when I call someplace and a human answers the phone,” she says. “I can ask questions and get more than I would from a robocall. I appreciate talking to a real person, especially when it comes to my loved ones.”

Pat Wilbern, nights

Pat Wilbern started at Homeland in 1990, putting her typing skills and medical secretary certificate to work in the front office.

“I love Homeland, and I love the residents,” she says today. “It is a great place to work.”

As nightshift receptionist, Pat operates in a “nice and peaceful” setting. Nonetheless, she is there when residents and families need her. One resident sleeps all day and calls to chat at night. While they talk, Pat texts a CNA to check on her.

She also helps families find answers for their middle-of-the-night questions, and she connects the nighttime calls that residents place just to hear a loved one’s voice. Before the COVID-19 lockdown, she greeted family members stopping on their way to work for visits with their relatives.

“Homeland is very responsive to the needs of the residents,” she says. “They have always been my main concern.”

Daneen Williams, weekends

As the first person that Homeland guests see, Daneen Williams tries to “make everyone’s visit to Homeland just as pleasurable as possible.”

Daneen started working at Homeland in dietary in 1992, switching to the reception desk about five years later. She brings her spontaneous nature to the post, providing a compassionate ear and a sense of calm for families undergoing the difficult transition to nursing-home care for a loved one.

“I explain to them that they did the best thing for their parent or family member because their loved one is getting 24-hour care with specialized and certified assistance,” she says.

Daneen has gotten to know some memorable residents, including one whose aunt modeled for the Beaux-Arts paintings in the Pennsylvania Capitol and the dancing nymphs immortalized in the fountain at Harrisburg’s Italian Lake Park.

Because Homeland is the residents’ home, Daneen does everything she can “to make the residents’ experience as comfortable as possible.”

Though COVID has restricted personal visits, she makes sure family members know someone is at the desk 24/7, “so if they ever feel they want to check in on their loved one, they can do that at any point in time because we have charge nurses and supervising nurses here at all times for their ease.”

Board of Managers member Julie Wilhite finds joy in service and friendship

Julie Wilhite

Homeland Center Board of Manager, Julie Wilhite

When Julie Wilhite’s mother arrived at Homeland Center, the family continued a tradition of Wednesday night get-togethers. The first time they were setting up for dinner in the Homeland solarium, a group of residents and their visiting daughters said hello and offered a table.

“I already knew Homeland was a good place, and I knew my mom would be taken care of, but at that point, I thought, ‘These families are so welcoming,’” Julie says.

So, when Homeland approached her about serving on the Board of Managers, Julie’s response was an enthusiastic yes.

Julie always knew about Homeland’s reputation as central Pennsylvania’s premier continuing care retirement community. Her mom’s move to Homeland in December 2018 confirmed that belief, reinforced by Homeland’s active efforts to shield residents from COVID-19 while also keeping them active and engaged.

Though Homeland has had to restrict in-person visits because of the pandemic, every day Julie and her sister, Jan, call their mother and talk about her latest activities. Whether it’s morning devotions with Pastor Dann Caldwell or a socially distanced round of Bingo, Julie and Jan always have plenty to talk about with their mom.

“The activities group has done an incredible job,” she says. “The nursing staff is wonderful.”

Julie joined the Board of Managers in September 2019; she serves on the Nominating and Bylaws Committee and helps plan events. Just before the quarantine, she helped present the lively and colorful sock-hop themed winter party, complete with Elvis Presley impersonator and Homeland staffers wearing poodle skirts.

“It warms your heart to see the smiles on the faces of the residents and how much fun the staff has interacting with them,” she says. “It brings such joy to everyone.”

The Board of Managers is one half of Homeland’s unique dual governance structure. While the Board of Trustees guides policy and financial affairs, the Board of Managers offers the touches that give Homeland its renowned home-like feel.

Volunteering has a special place in Julie’s life. For 31 years, she has volunteered for the Ronald McDonald House, the home-away-from-home for families of patients at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital in Hershey. Julie loves the support that families offer each other and the respite the house provides for families who are, at the end of the day, “exhausted mentally and physically.

She likes that volunteering for Homeland connects her with the other end of the age spectrum. Julie joined the Board of Managers, in part, because she has always believed that the elderly are special people.

“I enjoy engaging in conversation with the residents,” she says. “We become friends.”
Members of the Board of Managers “are very dedicated and hardworking,” she adds. “They want a lot of good things for the residents of Homeland.”

While they can’t enter the building during the quarantine, they have found ways to support residents and staff. They arrange fresh flowers for residents’ rooms, send birthday cards to residents, and provide snacks and write notes of support to staffers.

“We keep positive,” says Julie. “My motto is, ‘Better days ahead.’”

Julie is a retired dental assistant who hasn’t let retirement slow her down. In 2002, she and her husband founded All-American Supply House, a business selling specialty advertising, promotional items and printed apparel. She also was such a good customer of Annabel’s, a Susquehanna Township boutique, that the owner offered her a job. Working there part-time is her “feel-good job.”

“People always feel better when they’re wearing something new and look awesome in it,” she says.
Julie was first married at age 21. Her husband, Kevin Smith, died from cancer in 1995.

“Through faith, family and friends, you get through the hardest times of your life,” she says. “I was blessed to find love again. I married Ted Wilhite 17 years ago.”

Together, they travel to visit his kids, and they entertain.

“Getting together with family and friends is as good as it gets,” Julie believes. And since her mother moved to Homeland and she joined the Board of Managers, her extended family has grown to include Homeland’s residents and their loved ones.

“You become family,” she says. “The family here becomes your family, also. It’s a good thing.”

Homeland Center trustee Keith A. Clark relishes a challenge


With a long legal career behind him, Keith Clark has been narrowing his civic causes to those that present new challenges or learning opportunities. The offer to serve on the Homeland Board of Trustees intrigued him.

“Health care is an area with a great deal of moving parts right now,” he says. “This is of interest to me because it offers a new intellectual challenge. I’m also learning about the issue on the side because my mother is in a nursing home. Those two things came together.”

Keith accepted the offer and joined the Homeland Board of Trustees, bringing his considerable experience and methodical mind to the finance and strategic planning committees.

Keith is the chairman of the well-known Harrisburg law firm Shumaker Williams, P.C., where he clerked while earning his Juris Doctorate from Dickinson School of Law. He also served as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force and received his bachelor’s degree in economics from Rutgers College.

Keith dove into community causes and networking “the day I  started practicing law because that’s one way I could get to know people.”

“Harrisburg in the early ‘70s was a pretty closed town, as far as breaking into society,” says Keith, who in 1972 became a shareholder in his firm and its manager. “I had to develop my own path and my own veracity in the community.”

Keith has chaired a variety of significant organizations and initiatives, including Envision Capital Region, Capital Region Economic Development Corporation (CREDC), and the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission.

“I’ve said to young people in my firm over the years that if you’re going to get involved in boards, treat it like a client,” he says. “When you say you’re going to do something, you do it. You do it in a timely fashion and bring your skill set to that board.”

As a board member, he draws on his experience with banking, general business and corporate law, commercial real estate, mergers and acquisitions, trade associations, business planning, governance, and government relations.

That kind of wide-ranging knowledge feeds his need to be “creatively challenged” in the problem-solving realm. His varied dealings stand in contrast to today’s legal environment, where the complexities of specific areas force attorneys to specialize.

“I’m always looking for a new challenge in a new area,” he says. “When the Payment Protection Program came out recently, I determined that one of my associates and I would learn that backward and forwards because it was a new practice area.”

He joined Homeland Center’s board in September 2019, embarking on “a listening process” to learn about the organization, its rich history, and its future. During a meeting in December, he stressed the need to make strategic planning a constant effort, flexible and subject to revision as circumstances change.

“It isn’t a cast-in-stone document anymore,” he says. “It’s something you have to make into a living, breathing document as challenges arise.”

In particular, strategic planning should always consider unintended consequences.

“People want to quickly get to the answer and move on,’’ he says. “But you have to look at how your decisions interact strategically with your plans.’’

Keith’s wife, Linda Clark, is an underwriter for WITF, the Harrisburg-area public media outlet. In fact, that’s how they met. She was his firm’s WITF sales representative, but they’d only communicated by phone until mutual friends brought them together. Married 22 years, they have a son who is in his junior year at the University of Colorado, where he is a biochemistry major.

They enjoy going out to eat, something he rarely got to do as a kid in Reading. They also love attending live theater in New York and locally. COVID-19 curtailed both pursuits, so they’ve been streaming political dramas and catching up on “Masterpiece” series that they missed.

“She likes horror movies,” he says. “I don’t. She can watch those on her own.”

What he has seen of Homeland so far is “really great.” Its leadership is strong. So is its reputation.

“There is a lot of positive feeling about the organization, internally and externally by third parties,’’ he says. “I mention that I’m on the Homeland board, and people recognize the name.”

Children of Homeland staff bring enthusiasm and passion to Homeland jobs


Drew Weldon engages with Homeland residents as if he’s known them for years.

“Hi, Nancy!” he says to one. “What’s up? Going for your walk? It’s hot out. It’s going to be hot out today.”

Drew has only been working at Homeland for a few weeks but his ties to Homeland Center and his affinity with the residents run deep. He is one of four summer hires who is the child of a Homeland employee. All bring the same work ethic and attentiveness to the well-being of residents that their parents deliver every day.

Those Homeland employees and their children are Jen Parsons and Tyra Bell, Tracey and Tyanna Jennings, Jennifer and Major Defreitas and Drew and Kelly Weldon. Additionally, longer term pairs of employees of parents and children include Gina George and DeVonte Talton, Malika Green and Candace Neverson, Miranda Mills and Kiana Mills, Pam Brown and Ashley Bryan, and Felicia Wallace and Lynee Brown,

We chatted with the summer hires – Tyra, Major, Tyanna, and Drew – about the priceless lessons they learn from working at Homeland.

Tyra Bell

Tyra Bell and Mom, Jen

Tyra has been coming to Homeland for so long that she’s been called “the Homeland baby.” Her mom, Jennifer Parsons, QA-CAN, celebrated her 20th anniversary with Homeland in summer 2020, and Tyra is a 22-year-old preparing for graduate studies in community psychology at Point Park University, Pittsburgh.

“Homeland has a friendly and homey environment,” she says. “Coming here for so long and now working here, I make family connections with everyone. I love it here.”

Tyra works in activities and dietary, and doing one-on-one visits with residents, who share good stories and words of wisdom. One day, a skilled-care resident preparing for discharge beckoned Tyra over.

“She was holding my hand and saying that every time she rings her bell, I’m always the first to come check on her and make sure she has everything she needs and that I’m doing a lovely job. She said that I’m so respectful and should just keep doing what I’m doing and live life to the fullest.”

The moment made Tyra cry a little bit. “She reminded me of my grandma,” she says.

Tyra loves service work, such as a trip she took to rebuild homes in Puerto Rico, so working at Homeland “felt right because it’s what I like to do. I like to help people.”

When Tyra leaves Harrisburg in mid-August, Homeland will be on her mind.

‘I’ve only been here a short time, but I’m definitely going to miss all the residents and my coworkers, but I’ll be back to visit!”

Major Defreitas

Major Defreitas and Mom, Jennifer

Major, 17, worked in a restaurant job until it closed for the COVID-19 shutdown. Like his fellow summer hires, he says that Homeland employees care about and for each other as much as they care for the residents.

At Homeland, Major works in dietary, and he hears those stories of the past from residents during his one-on-one visits with them.

“They share what they did when they were younger, and how many kids they have,” he says. “We just talk or play card games.”

Major will be a senior at Central Dauphin East High School, where his favorite class is history.

“I like learning about stuff that happened in the past,” he says. “It’s good for the imagination. I could draw a picture about the way people lived back then.”

Major, whose mom is Director of Nursing Jennifer Tate-Defreitas, has worked at Homeland for more than 20 years. When he was younger, Major enjoyed volunteering at Homeland, helping with the annual summer fair, or accompanying residents on trips around town.

Today, he finds working at Homeland gratifying because he can be a help while staff is striving to protect residents from COVID-19.

“It feels good to be a part of something important like Homeland,” he says.

Tyanna Jennings

Tyanna plans a career in nursing, perfect for her nurturing soul. She has set her eye on pediatric nursing, but working in a continuing care retirement community has taught her valuable skills for life.

“It helps me with my people skills and communication,” she says. “I learned to listen more. Not everyone talks the same way, so you learn to be patient.”

The 17-year-old first encountered Homeland through volunteering for a school service project, but she liked it so much that she kept coming back. She didn’t need much advice from her mom, Assistant Director of Human Resources Tracey Jennings when she got a job here because she knew Homeland and its people well.

Tyanna works in the Homeland activities department, perhaps bringing residents to “Calm My Mind Tea Time,” or handing out treats from the ice cream cart.

She has lunch with her mom every day and enjoys the company of her co-workers.

“I like being around the residents, too, and hearing what they have to say.”

Drew Weldon

Drew Weldon and Mom, Kelly

At 10 years old, Drew was learning construction trades from his father and grandparents – masonry, plumbing, electricity. Now 16, he’s a Homeland handyman, doing landscaping and maintenance inside and out.

No day is ever the same.

Working at Homeland has enhanced his respect for the elderly “because they’ve been through a lot more than I have.”

“You learn more and ask more questions and see how it was back then,” he says. “It makes you more mature when you talk to older people and you have a job. I like the responsibility of the job and the responsibility of taking care of people.”

He arrives at work early and is done by mid-afternoon. After every workday, the Central Dauphin High School wrestler works out at the gym for three hours.

Drew carpools to work daily with his mom, Assistant Director of Nursing Kelly Weldon. He has always known she works hard, but seeing firsthand how she handles herself and her duties has given him a new perspective.

“Working with her and seeing what she does and how much the residents love her — it’s amazing the amount of respect they show her,” he says. “If she has a rough day at work, I get it. It’s not an easy job. Now, I give my mom 100 times more respect.”

Staff and residents throroughly enjoyed our experiences with the summer hires and we were sad to say ‘good-bye’ to those already back at school. At the same time we were thankful for the chance to know them and have a part in their life experience and potential futures. We wish them all the best and look forward to future visits!

Homeland coordinates window visits to keep families in touch


“Hi, Grandma!”

“Hello! I miss you!”

“Do you see Jillian, and Brooke, and Alex?”

In groups of two or three, the members of Betty Dumas’ family took turns saying hello to their beloved mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. With COVID-19 restrictions still in effect, no one could go inside, so the gathering took place at a Homeland Center window.

In the age of limited contact, Homeland coordinates window visits that keep families connected.

From the inside, residents get a bit of cheer and love. From the outside, family members get reassurance that their loved one is doing fine.

It is all done in compliance with Homeland’s strict measures to prevent COVID-19 contamination without compromising the vibrant quality of life assured to every resident.

On this day, Betty’s family congregated outside the windows of the first-floor skilled care dining room. The window visits help make the inability to visit in person a bit more tolerable, said Betty’s daughter, Donna Longnaker.

“I’m just so happy to see her,” she said. “I really am.”

Advance scheduling helps Homeland staff coordinate the little details that assure safety and a positive experience for residents and their families. It starts when families call Homeland’s activities office to schedule a time and day.

From there, a Homeland staff member lets the resident know their family is coming and makes sure they are wearing a face mask before taking them to the visiting window. Using a personal or Homeland Center phone, the staff member connects to one of the family members outside.

“The residents find great joy in it,” says Homeland Activities Director Aleisha Connors. “They enjoy seeing their family face to face, right there through the window.”

Multiple generations and, sometimes, family dogs will join in the visits. Some families bring signs proclaiming, “We love you,” or showing family photos.

Pouring rain didn’t stop the celebration of one resident’s 97th birthday party. While she stayed dry inside, family members stood outside under their umbrellas. They dropped off presents at the front door, and Aleisha brought them to the resident’s side. Together, they opened gifts consisting of clothing and an arts and crafts kit.

Another resident’s granddaughter came to the window, wearing her wedding dress for the ceremony that her grandmother would not be able to attend.

“When you see things like this, it’s amazing, and you really are reminded how important family interaction is for the residents,” says Director of Social Services and Ellenberger Unit Coordinator Ashley Bryan.

The window visits can augment the virtual visits that Homeland started coordinating after the pandemic restrictions prevented visitors from coming inside. For family, the window visits offer firsthand assurances of the quality care their loved ones receive.

On a warm Monday afternoon, Betty Dumas hosted three generations for a window visit. They took their turns chatting. When a question came up about how long Betty had worked as a nurses’ aide at Harrisburg’s former Polyclinic Hospital, they merely had to ask, and Betty answered — 22 years.

Betty’s granddaughter, Nicole Yasenchak, brought her three children to the window visit.

“She seems to be in good spirits”, she said.

Some residents, like Betty, do better with window visits than virtual visits because they have a hard time seeing faces and following conversations on the small screen.

The visits even give family members a chance to interact with the staff that they get to know so well. Donna said hello to a staff member who tapped on the window to get her attention.
Donna wishes she could hug her mom, but she has the comfort of knowing that her mother is safe at Homeland.

“I love Homeland,” she says. “I’m glad she’s here. She has a lot of good care.”

Board of Managers member Carol McCall gives back to Homeland


Carol McCall was sitting in Homeland Center’s Chet Henry Memorial Pavilion helping the Board of Managers prepare fresh flower arrangements when two residents walked up.

The next thing Carol knew, one resident was talking about his time in the Air Force, and the other was talking about his Navy service.

“I enjoy talking to the residents and hearing what they have to share,” Carol says. “That’s what I like about the way Homeland gets to know the residents and hears their stories because it is important to listen to everyone.’’

The Board of Managers is Homeland’s unique, all-female board responsible for maintaining Homeland’s renowned homelike feel. Although Carol is relatively new to the board, she has deep ties to Homeland through family and church.

Carol became acquainted with Homeland in 1998, when she and her sister were scrambling to find a nursing home capable of providing skilled care for their mother and personal care for their father. Homeland “just seemed to be the right place.” Their decision was confirmed when their trusted family physician said, “You girls did the right thing.”

“He could see the level of care his patients were receiving,” Carol says.

After they came to Homeland, Carol’s mother lived for one year, and her father “flourished for two years.”

“He was so happy with his suite,” she says. “He had everything he needed right there. And he just loved the food. He was constantly praising it. He even called one of his buddies who lived in a facility on the West Shore and said, ‘Eddie, you ought to move here. The food is so good.’”

Carol’s dad made good friends and was under the care of a nurse knowledgeable about his medications. He was an electronics whiz who built the family’s first television and repaired radios and radar on Army helicopters at New Cumberland Army Depot. He participated in history discussion groups. When poetry activities were coming up, Carol – who kept a poetry file from her college days – would get a call.

“Carol, I need a poem for Veterans Day,” he would say. Or, “I need a poem for this weather.”

“We were very thankful for the care and the quality of the people that were at Homeland,” Carol says now. “Some of them are still here.”

Carol’s dad also enjoyed excursions around town, and now, Carol has come full circle. As a Board of Managers volunteer, she sometimes joined residents on their outings (pre-pandemic) for lunch or shopping. On a holiday trip to a shopping mall, Santa Claus waved at the group, and everyone marveled at the decorations.

“The men weren’t there to shop very much,” she says. “They went to the optometrist to get their glasses adjusted.”

Carol lives in South Hanover Township, outside of Hershey. She grew up in Harrisburg’s Colonial Park area and spent her career happily teaching first and third graders in Central Dauphin School District, where she had attended school. She still hears from former students. One grew up to be an award-winning teacher at Dauphin County Technical School.

Several of Carol’s church friends had served on the Homeland Board of Managers, and Carol would often visit church friends who were residents. She once turned down an invitation to serve on the Board of Managers because the time was not right, but when the opportunity came again in fall 2019, she accepted.

She enjoys flower arranging, which during normal times perks up the dining room tables and now, with the pandemic limitations, individual arrangements brighten up residents’ rooms. In retrospect, she is pleased that residents were able to enjoy the Board of Managers’ winter party just before protections against COVID-19 put an end to large gatherings and outside visitors. That “Homeland Sock Hop” featured staff wearing poodle skirts, specially made cookies, and an Elvis impersonator making the ladies swoon.

“The idea of going to the party, gathering, and getting ready is something the residents look forward to,” Carol says.

Carol and her husband, George McCall, enjoyed attending concerts at Mt. Gretna. They also travel when they can, sometimes taking short boat trips along coastal sites.Carol appreciates Homeland’s unwavering commitment to excellence. In regular times, that meant training staff to sustain high levels of care. During the pandemic, she says the staff has

“I see Homeland as such a positive place,” she says. “It’s a nice, clean, happy, well-run home.”