On the home front: Homeland Center residents did their part for the war effort


Lyn Russek (L) and Phyllis Duin (R)

All it took to reunite two childhood friends was a World War II-era photo and the Homeland Center newsletter.

As Memorial Day 2021 approaches, it is also a reminder that America’s veterans who once served in uniform were backed to the hilt by those doing their part at home – including Homeland residents.

The telephone reunion of Homeland resident Lyn Russek and her lifelong friend Phyllis Hammer came about Lyn was profiled for Homeland’s April 2021 newsletter. She mentioned that she had volunteered for the Navy League during World War II. Assigned to Abington Memorial Hospital, her duties included delivering meals to patients and filling tiny bags with sugar for their trays.

That sent the newsletter writer on an internet search, which revealed a digital version of Abington Memorial Hospital’s report on its work during the war years. On page five was a photo of two teenage girls in white uniforms. Could one of them be Lyn? Homeland Assistant Director of Development Ed Savage took an iPad to Lyn and showed her the photo.

“I was amazed, absolutely amazed that you could find something like that,” Lyn says. The picture showed her on the left and her friend, now Phyllis Duin, on the right.

Immediately, Lyn picked up the phone. She last talked to Phyllis more than five years ago, after Phyllis’ husband died. The last time they were together was at their 50th high school reunion in 1995.

“She picked up the phone right away,” Lyn says. “We had a wonderful chat. We talked over old times. It was wonderful to talk to her. We caught up on our kids.”

Lyn and Phyllis were close friends, part of a tight-knit group from elementary school. When World War II arrived, their mothers served on the Navy League, a civilian support group. It was a time when everyone chipped in to feel useful, so Lyn and Phyllis volunteered, too.

The work was hard, but Lyn didn’t mind. She took the bus to the hospital – her patriotic father gave up the family car to help conserve gasoline – and the girls had fun.

“If you haven’t lived through a war like that, it’s very hard to explain,” says Lyn today. “You’re very aware of everybody being needed, and you found something to do. My boyfriend in high school was a part of the air patrol. He went on patrol two or three nights a week and scoured the skies. We were young, but we did things. Everybody did something.”

When she was a bit older, Lyn joined a group of girls who helped host weekly dinners at the Philmont Country Club for patients from the local military hospital. When news came of V-J Day, Lyn got on the bus once more – free to all riders on this day – and went to the USO. It turns out that the classic image of overflowing affection to celebrate the war’s end was true.

“It was wonderful,” she says. “Everybody kissed everybody. Nobody knew who anybody was, but we didn’t care.”

While Lyn was filling sugar packets, another Homeland resident also did her part for home front health care. Lee Spitalny was a Girl Scout whose troop rolled bandages. They were gauze bandages, provided in rolls that the girls cut to prescribed lengths and rolled up for use somewhere in the world.

“At age 13, I was not that aware of the war, but my mother made sure I went every week and did the rolling of the bandages,” Lee recalls, adding that her uncle served in the Army but was never shipped overseas.

“I remember the mailman waving letters from my uncle as he walked down the street to deliver the mail,” Lee says. “It was like he was saying, ‘Guess what’s coming! Wonderful stuff!’”

Unlike Lyn, Lee was a bit too young to serve as a hostess for servicemen.

“I was 13, and I wanted to volunteer at the USO and dance with the soldiers, and my mother said, ‘Get in your bedroom, and you’re going to stay there,’” Lee recalls with a laugh. “She didn’t send me to my bedroom, but she explained, ‘Honey, no USO.’”

Board of Managers member Deborah Brinser McDivitt: A place called home for generations of moms


Deb and Mom, Jean (left side, seated) enjoying Elvis

The last big gathering at Homeland Center before COVID-19 changed everything was a sock hop featuring a performance from the lively Elvis Presley tribute artist Dennis Heckard. He recognized resident Jean Brinser, a neighbor from Newport, and lavished her with attention.

Jean’s daughter, Deborah Brinser McDivitt, said her mother was delighted.

“She told me that if she knew he was going to be so nice to her, she’d have worn her wig!” Deb says with a laugh.

The story of Deb Brinser McDivitt is a Mother’s Day tale of three generations finding security and fulfillment at Homeland. Deb’s grandmother was a Homeland resident in her final years, and today, her mother lives in Homeland’s skilled care.

Deb serves on the Homeland Center Board of Managers, the unique group whose roots date to the 18 women who founded Homeland as a haven for widows and orphans in post-Civil War Harrisburg. Today, the all-volunteer, all-female Board of Managers retains Homeland’s renowned home-like feel by maintaining the elegant décor and hosting parties, including the Elvis-themed bash and an equally popular Casino Night.

Deb’s acquaintance with Homeland started when her grandmother was 94 and required nursing care after a fall. Visiting local facilities, Deb saw places where care was lacking. But at Homeland, she was impressed. She also knew that her very particular neighbors had loved ones in Homeland and were happy with the attention they received.

For the next two years, Deb witnessed the Homeland staff interacting as a team and responding to the needs of residents. Her grandmother loved the food – and more.

“She said to me that it feels like home,” says Deb. “They were so kind and so loving but always respectful.”

In 2014, Deb retired from her position as director of finance for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. Later, she mentioned to a member of the Board of Managers that her bucket list included helping Homeland, an organization that impressed her.

The invitation to join the Board of Managers felt like fate. Deb’s career background included time as a CPA and about 10 years with the former Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare in a financial capacity, so she feels comfortable discussing the issues surrounding Medicare, Medicaid, and finances critical to assuring Homeland’s quality of care. She sits on the board’s long-range planning committee and chaired the nominating committee.

“You learn how to work with people,” she says. “You learn how to head up projects. You learn how to communicate.”

As she winds down her second of two three-year terms, Deb looks back on the Board of Managers’ bazaars, bake sales, and legendary spring and summer parties. All designed to uplift residents and sustain the atmosphere that Deb’s grandmother loved and that her mother now enjoys.

“I never doubted my mother would receive excellent care at Homeland,” she says. “They’ve treated her so well. I couldn’t ask for better care. It’s a five-star facility. That’s the reason I wanted her here. Everyone has gone out of their way to make sure she’s comfortable.”

Deb and her husband of 35 years, J. Gary McDivitt, are seasoned travelers who have been around the United States and Europe. They have cruised the Rhine and Danube rivers, toured Ireland and taken a trip to Prague, Vienna, and Budapest.

Around 2007, they built a beach house in Lewes, Delaware, that Deb’s mother liked as well. Jean Brinser was a woman ahead of her time – fiercely independent and a groundbreaking high school business teacher.

“She loved going to the beach,” Deb says. “She liked to go out to eat. It was a nice little getaway for her.”

Today, Deb loves visiting her mother at Homeland and, as a Board of Managers member, talking to all the residents.

“They have such interesting stories,” she says. “You hear about their lifestyles and what their lives have been like and their experiences. People come in from different places. It’s been a terrific experience, as a board member and as somebody who has a family member there.”