By Christina Kelso
JU Communications sophomore
As the sun settled behind the pastel yellow walls of Jacksonville’s Gabriel House of Care, a cacophony of dinner preparations arose inside. The sounds of clattering silverware and crackling packages echoed from the kitchen as four members of the Jacksonville University women’s softball team arranged a smorgasbord of picnic-style fare.
Rallied together by JU junior and sociology major Miranda Fleming, the students came to the Gabriel House on a recent day (April 15) to prepare and serve sandwiches, chopped fruits and vegetables and desserts to guests. Located on the Mayo Clinic Florida campus in the Intracoastal West area, the non-profit hospitality house is an affordable home away from home where cancer and organ transplant patients receiving treatment in Jacksonville can stay with their caregivers.
“To sit down and talk to them after we fed them was like a whole new experience,” said Karson Tuck, a JU junior and exercise science major. “They had so many stories to tell. Just to see them, it was like they were my grandparents, so it was happy, sad, a mix of emotions.”
The student-led volunteer effort emerged from a JU service-learning course called “Sociology of Community,” taught by Dr. Laura Chambers, JU’s Director of Service-Learning.
The students spent time studying needs in the Jacksonville community, and selected the Gabriel House program as one where they could make a positive impact, Chambers said.
“The passion Miranda expressed at her final project presentation demonstrated the great amount she learned about giving and leadership,” she said.
With only eight staff members and up to 58 occupants staying anywhere from a few nights to months at a time, the house requires a vast pool of volunteers to help on a day-to-day basis, according to the organization’s website.
“The whole house is run by volunteers,” said Wanda Denney, Gabriel House volunteer. “To have additional ones come in and prepare the meals for the people after they’ve been to the hospital all day or just in their rooms not feeling well is absolutely fantastic.”
Former guest Ed Kelly first traveled to the Gabriel House from his home in Oliver Springs, Tenn., to receive treatment at Mayo Clinic following a surgery he underwent to fight prostate cancer. He was in town for a check-up and visiting some familiar faces at the house when the girls arrived.
“They sit down and they listen to us old guys tell stories and talk about our travels, and they seemed very interested,” Kelly said. “They seemed like they were having a good time, and I think they were. These are great kids.”
Fleming’s inspiration to make a difference at the house came from meeting Gabriel House Volunteer Coordinator and JU alumna Susan Brodersen at a JU career fair. Brodersen began her own work with the house as a student volunteer when it opened in April 2011.
“It really brought me out of my own head and made me stop thinking about what that person said to me yesterday, or ‘Oh no, I have that paper due next week,’ ” she said.
Brodersen is now a full-time staff member and uses her JU connections to reach out at campus events to stir involvement from current students.
“I got so much more out of volunteering here than maybe even the guests received from me being here,” she said. “It was such an amazing experience, and when I left they would thank me, but really it was me thanking them.”
The Gabriel House is recruiting for routine volunteers to help with daily tasks in the house such as cleaning and office work, and for less-frequent helpers to host events such as dinners and game nights or, for those with writing backgrounds, to talk to guests and record their stories, Brodersen said. Those interested in getting involved can contact Brodersen with ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Once you share an experience like this with somebody, you really do become family,” she said. “It’s just an incredible experience to be able to connect with a person on this sort of level.”