As Homeland Center celebrates its 147th year, a former administrator recalls challenges and triumphs


It was 1975, and Homeland Center’s first paid administrator had a lot to do – implement strict state safety codes, adopt city fire regulations and restructure how care was provided to qualify for Medicaid and Medicare.

But Isabelle Smith added another task to the serious safety and financial issues on her plate. Homeland’s main building, the brick structure dating to 1870, was painted an ugly yellow.

“It was grotesque,” Smith recalls. ”It was peeling and peeling.” So, Smith convinced the board president to sandblast off the paint and construct a presentable façade, so the building “looked like it should be there.”

Isabelle Smith became a Homeland resident in late 2012, but her Homeland history dates to her time as administrator from 1975 to 1992. Under her leadership, Homeland survived a crisis that threatened to shut its doors, emerging as today’s model of stability and responsive, responsible care.

As Homeland enters its 147th year, Smith looks back on the challenges she faced, as well as the triumphs.

History points the way 

Smith sits in her cheery room as she recalls the turnaround. In 1975, Homeland’s finances were shoddy. Conditions fell short of modern standards. “Destructive people,” ostensibly responsible for managing the home, seemed intent on shutting it down.

“There was a defeated attitude here,” Smith says. “It was broke and didn’t have a good reputation.”

In her daunting task, Smith drew inspiration from Homeland’s founders, the society women who learned from their maids and laundresses about the orphaned children and destitute widows in their midst in post-Civil War Harrisburg.

“I love them,” says Smith of the long-gone women she never met. “I love them.”

The founding women committed to caring for residents without regard to finances. That abiding principle remains intact. However, when Smith arrived, few residents had any means at all, and the little they had went straight to the bank, with no accountability. Smith wasn’t allowed to see Homeland’s financial records. She paid bills from a monthly allowance disbursed by the bank. There were no personnel files.

“They were operating like it was still in the 1800s,” she recalls.

Sparking a turnaround

The last straw came when the all-male board of trustees ruthlessly grilled Carolyn Kunkel, then-chair of the board of managers, about spending $300 to reupholster a tattered couch. Smith vowed that the shaken woman would “never, never have to do that again.”

“I’m going to perform the great miracle of Homeland,” she told Kunkel. “I’m going to make a budget, and they’re going to pass it.”

“That,’’ says Smith now, “was the end of that.”

Some trustees doubted a woman’s ability to manage, but Smith’s tenacity and methodical approach won them over. She tracked down funding, worked with state officials, and secured Medicare and Medicaid approval. She restored control over residents’ personal funds to Homeland. She established an internal bank for residents, issuing monthly statements detailing their resources.

With finances back in Homeland control, Smith figured she “had to do something with it.”

“I wanted people to have a good impression of this home,” she says. “I wanted them to think, ‘This is the place I want to be.’”

Maintenance staff painted hallways. Rooms received makeovers, with drapes and bedspreads made from “beautiful, beautiful sheets.” The board of managers gathered artwork for the walls. Homeland built its first wing, the 32-bed Medicare/Medicaid-approved skilled care area.

“The residents became so inspired with what was going on,” says Smith. “They were thrilled.”

Group effort

Homeland is now justifiably famous for the dedication and longevity of its staff, but when Smith arrived, many staffers were disheartened. She stressed education, the human side of caregiving, and the importance of each staff member to reaching exemplary quality levels.

“If I said I wanted something by such-and-such a time, then they better have it done by such-and-such a time, or I would hunt for them and get them by the ear and get them back to do it,” she says. “I had a reputation for having the finest staff you ever want to meet.”

Smith credits many colleagues for their help — medical director Dr. Donald Freedman; financial consultant Frank Caswell, who helped with the Medicare and Medicaid adoption; Tama Carey, one of Smith’s directors of nursing; and Nancy Snavely, Smith’s own daughter and an assistant who was “vitally important to everything I did.”

“I have met in my lifetime some of the most wonderful people that God ever created,” Smith says. “They inspired me. People wonder why I am the way I am. I know why I’m the way I am. I’ve met such fine, fine, human beings, and they gave me the strength to be me.”

As a Homeland resident, Smith’s favorite time of day is after dinner, when the dishes have been cleared in the dining room.

“There’s life in the home,” she says. “I love to sit after dinner and just listen. That’s when the chatter begins.”