Dot Schillinger pulls warm towels from the dryer at Heffernan House.
Heffernan Volunteers Provide Home Away From Home For Patients, Families
They’re tired, stressed, worried. Many have traveled a long way from home, and the end of their journey is far in the distance.
Then they arrive at Heffernan Hospitality House, a storybook cottage situated just south of the hospital and operated by the volunteers of St. Anthony’s Auxiliary. They are greeted with a warm welcome by longtime volunteer Dorothy “Dot” Schillinger, volunteer coordinator at Heffernan, who is just finishing up a laundry load of sheets and towels. This is their home for the night, or a week, and they are grateful.
“My husband and I would like to thank all the volunteers of Heffernan House,” Nancy, a resident of Wayne City, Ill., wrote to the volunteers in May 2011. “You are all angels on assignment.
“This has been like a home away from home…a very beautiful and relaxing place to come after my back surgery, and rehab and walk in the garden. God bless you all; this stay will not be forgotten.”
Schillinger has two guest books at the house that are filled with similar sentiments. When she leafs through them, she remembers each guest, each family, as if they had been there yesterday. She smiles. “This is the love of my life over here: I meet the nicest people,” she said. “I believe God works through us to bring calm and comfort to these families.”
Guests have included the family that gathered together for dinner in the dining room for the first time in years, during their mom’s final illness; the parents of an infant in the Special Care Nursery, who lived too far from the medical center to make a daily commute; and the carnival worker from Louisiana who was scruffy and disheveled when he arrived for treatment at St. Anthony’s, but kept the volunteers in stitches with his fun stories and delicious Cajun recipes.
“He was just so much fun to be with,” recalled Schillinger, 84. “He looked us up a few years later, when he returned to South County with a carnival at a school picnic.” The feeling is mutual with the guests, who hail from locales ranging from Florida to Hawaii – one even came from Germany. At least one visitor referred to Schillinger as “Mom #2” for her kindness, assistance and support.
Little wonder, then, that in 2008 the Auxiliary planted a southern magnolia tree in front of Heffernan House, in Schillinger’s honor.
“She’s like the Energizer Bunny,” recalled longtime volunteer Evelyn Reker, herself a former employee of the medical center whose tenure dates to the old hospital at Grand Boulevard and Chippewa Street.
Some other hospitals in the area offer freestanding lodging for patients and families, but St. Anthony’s Heffernan House is unique for the combination of its fascinating history, its unpaid staff and its location on the hospital campus. It’s also truly a home, a 70-plus-year-old brick cottage on Sunset Drive that once housed a large family, surrounded by rolling lawns and trees and shrubs, and the soothing sounds of a memorial fountain in the backyard.
The Auxiliary raised the money to establish Heffernan House and pay for its upkeep. Opened in May 2001 and renovated in 2009, it is staffed by 14 volunteers who provide guest assistance from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week. The house includes two living areas: two bedrooms that share a bath and rent for $45 each per night; and a suite, which has its own bath and rents for $60 per night. The Auxiliary furnishes dishes, linen, soda and snacks for its guests, who also have access to a fully furnished formal dining room, living room, recreation room, two kitchens equipped with microwaves, coffee makers, toasters, dishwashers and refrigerators, and two bathrooms. Each bedroom is equipped with a telephone that includes a voice mail message system.
Heffernan House is named for Ray Heffernan, a 46-year employee of the medical center and its former director of building services.
“He was just a very approachable person,” Reker noted. “If you asked for a particular thing to be done, he made sure it was done, and he always had a smile on his face.”
Historians believe the house was built around the remains of a log cabin on a 422-acre homestead belonging to pioneer Thomas Kennerly and his family in the early 1800s at present-day Kennerly and Tesson Ferry roads. For instance, the home’s fireplace is made of hand-cut gray stones, and contains a cast-iron arm that was designed to hold a kettle or pot. An abandoned well on the property is said to be deeper than the height of the Gateway Arch.
And the lengthy saga of Heffernan House continues to be written with every family who stays there (now approaching 1,000). As one guest wrote, “Sensational! And almost surreal to be in this beautiful place of rest, comfort and peace.”
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