Volunteering from the Heart

  • By:  Sonja Barisic

Many people celebrate Memorial Day with a cookout. Elsie Harris did so this summer, but not just for her family. She prepared and handed out food to veterans, homeless people, senior citizens, and others in need. 

Elsie, who’s 59 and lives in Virginia Beach, may design electrical systems for Dominion Virginia Power for a living, but volunteering is her way of life. She was named a Dominion Volunteer of the Year twice—in 2001 and again this spring. Both times, she selected St. Mary’s Home in Norfolk as her charity of choice to receive a $1,000 donation from the energy company.

Elsie learned about St. Mary’s Home when Dominion loaned her to United Way for a couple months to help the agency with its fundraising campaign kickoff. The private, nonprofit home for children and young adults with disabilities is supported in part by donations including through United Way. 

That experience led Elsie to volunteer to sit with the babies at St. Mary’s. She also became more familiar with St. Mary’s through a coworker, who was adopted from St. Mary’s back when it was more of an orphanage, and from a granddaughter who started working at the Home. “I just love children. I love babies. I got so attached,” Harris said. “I do a lot of volunteering at different places, but this is one place that my heart is.”

About 90 children and young adults who have severe intellectual and physical disabilities live, play, go to school, and receive long- or short-term, around-the-clock care at the private St. Mary’s Home, formerly St. Mary’s Home for Disabled Children. After nearly 70 years of caring for children, in 2013 St. Mary’s embraced adult care as well by opening The Albero House on its campus, near Sentara Leigh Hospital, for adults 22 and older who have severe disabilities. 

Elsie has passed down her passion for helping others to her two daughters and four grandchildren, including Paige Beavers, a licensed practical nurse at St. Mary’s. “I get inspired by people like Paige,” Elsie said. 

“She was so happy when I started working here,” Paige said of her grandmother. And Paige was happy, too. “I love the kids. They’re so joyful. You can never have a bad day here, no matter how you come in feeling.” 

Dominion recognized Elsie for her community service, such as donating and collecting school supplies and clothing, visiting nursing home residents, and planning a major landscaping project at a local school. Elsie is also a youth mentor, who has opened her doors to many homeless or abused young people. 

A customer projects designer, Elsie has worked at Dominion for 39 years. Dominion, based in Richmond, is one of the nation’s largest producers and transporters of energy. 

She and her granddaughters often get together and talk about what they can do for others. “Although we’ve never had anything handed to us, we’ve been so blessed,” Elsie said. 

Recently, Elsie and her family decided to cook for veterans on Memorial Day. “We all got together as family,” she said. “We cooked and we grilled. We held signs up. We passed out fliers.” Setting up in the parking lot of their church, they ended up giving free home-cooked meals to about 40-50 veterans, homeless people, senior citizens and other people who stopped by. 

During a recent visit to St. Mary’s, Elsie and Paige spent some time with two-year-old Payten, who was all smiles when they walked in to the classroom for the Infant and Toddler Program for St. Mary’s youngest residents. The program offers therapy, infant massage, and playtime in a cheerful environment to stimulate early development. 

Elsie also visited 16-year-old Nate, one of the young adults under Paige’s care. He was a feeling bit under the weather but brightened as Harris read a book to him. 

That afternoon, Martha Price Stewart, St. Mary’s director of development, surprised Elsie with a vase full of flowers to thank her and Dominion for their support. “I knew there was love here,” said Elsie, who plans to return to St. Mary’s soon with a gift for Nate: a T-shirt emblazoned with his favorite cartoon character, Sponge Bob. She also intends to spend a lot of time volunteering at the Home when she retires. 

For more information about volunteering at St. Mary’s Home, please call 757-622-2208 ext. 423. Donations are also gratefully accepted. Visit www.stmaryshome.org for more information.

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