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.”