As a hospice medical assistant, Tommi Paynter saw the best in people. She recalls a family in the all-white town of Gloucester, New Jersey, where most residents “would not appreciate a Black person coming into their town.”
“This woman and her family were so sweet,” she says. “Her daughter, she would always cook something and say, ‘This is for you to take home for your dinner.’”
Today, Tommi is living in Homeland Center’s Skilled Care, receiving excellent care and enjoying all the activities available. Her can-do spirit, positive outlook, and determination in the face of obstacles shine through as she talks about a life lived in service to others and always surrounded by family.
Thomasene “Tommi” Paynter was born in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, the second of nine children and named after her father, Thomas, who was a steelworker. Tommi’s mother was a preschool teacher and the one who taught her to be strong and resilient.
“My mother was my best friend,” she says. “I wasn’t the best kid. I wasn’t the worst kid, but I had good parents, hard-working parents.”
The kids got in trouble sometimes, climbing out windows and jumping off roofs. There was the time a brother watched plumbers working in the well and decided that he would climb down there himself.
They were also a musical family, playing instruments together. Tommi’s mother played the piano, and Tommi played piano and flute. She didn’t enjoy her piano lessons, given by a mean teacher who wielded a ruler to enforce correct hand positions.
What she loved was singing. Tommi and her four sisters formed a quintet, the Joy Gospel Singers. They toured churches all around the region. As an alto, Tommi loved singing harmony. Her solo hymn was “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”
After earning her GED, Tommi went to technical school to become a medical assistant. She found her calling working in a New Jersey hospice.
“Hospice patients, they know that they’re at the end of their life, and they appreciate what you do for them,” she says. “Whatever you do for them, they give you back far more.”
She thinks for a moment about the things that hospice patients taught her.
“Patience,” she says. “You learn that you can’t take for granted anything in life. Everything that happens is a gift from God. It was gratifying to work with them.”
She was a trustee of her church, and daily prayer helped her deal with the inevitable grief.
Through it all, she was a single mother raising three sons. Tommi’s journey with hospice patients came to an abrupt halt the day her face felt numb.
“They say a doctor or a nurse is the worst patient,” she says. “I had symptoms, but I said it was something else.”
Those symptoms signaled an oncoming stroke, and more followed. Doctors told one of her sons that she wouldn’t survive. She couldn’t speak, feed herself, or write her name using her beautiful handwriting.
“I couldn’t talk and I couldn’t write, but I could pray,” she says. “I sent prayer from my heart to God’s ear.” She knows that angels exist because God sent one that stayed by her side.
She climbed back with the help of speech therapy, physical therapy, “all kinds of therapy.” Thoughts of her six grandchildren inspired her to commit fully to recovery. Her oldest grandson, Christopher, would sit by her bedside and read to her.
She has now seen all six grandchildren graduate from high school, and three are still in college. “I just want to be here for them,” she says.
One of Tommi’s sons found Homeland through a friend who works there.
“It’s been a very nice place to live,” she says. “Everybody has treated me well.” She likes to stay active, so she gets involved in as many activities as she can. She enjoys Homeland’s musical programs. In her room are pictures on the wall that she has painted at Homeland’s art classes – and yet, before her stroke, she had never painted.
“That’s one of the things the Lord enabled me to do,” she says. “Since I don’t have money to leave my kids, I plan to do one painting for each of my sons.”