Story by Frances Figart | Photos by Sarah Jones Decker
When people who live outside of Buncombe County have a loved one in the hospital here, driving back and forth from home while tired and distracted compounds the stress and anxiety of caregiving. That’s why, in 1994, local philanthropist Adelaide Key opened a hospitality house for relatives of patients receiving care at Mission, St. Joseph, Care Partners and the Charles George VA Medical Center. She named the group of Victorian style buildings after her own doctor, a local medical pioneer and humanitarian, Dr. Lewis Rathbun.
“We offer lodging in a supportive environment in a home-like atmosphere for patients and their families coming to Asheville for medical treatment,” says Caryl Dean, operations manager at Mission Rathbun House. “We offer these services free of charge and operate on donations.”
Tucked away on 17 wooded acres in the picturesque Kenilworth neighborhood, Rathbun House is within five blocks of Mission Hospital and within two to five miles of the other facilities whose patient families it serves. It boasts 36 bedrooms, each with two single beds and a private bath, with rollaway beds allowing each room to accommodate as many as four people. Guests can sit in rockers on the front porch and listen to a nearby waterfall, relax by the pond or meander on the walking trail behind the facility. There are five laundry rooms, four television areas, Wi-Fi connection throughout the building and a community kitchen with cabinets and refrigerators organized by room number for use by the occupants.
“What did you do when you first came to the gravel road near our entrance?” Dean asks. “Did you slow down? Adelaide Key wanted that to be the first step in the healing and nurturing magic that happens at Rathbun House.”
The house—actually a compound of architecturally related and connected structures—was designed with nooks and crannies for personal space as well as lots and lots of natural light. An abundance of windows allow myriad opportunities to look out on the surrounding woods and comfortable verandas further connect each room to the natural environment. “Adelaide wanted nature to come in and heal and nurture,” Dean continues. “That is what happens here.”
Rathbun House was one of the first in the National Association of Hospitality Houses, and now is one of more than 200 such lodgings in the country. Of those in North Carolina, it is the only one that is free of charge for guests.
Family members can stay at the tranquil facility—which allows no smoking or alcohol—for up to 21 days after being referred by a physician’s office or member of the case management team at Mission. Stays longer than 21 days may be arranged at a per-day rate. A shuttle to and from Mission is provided for those who need transport.
Guests stay an average of six nights. They travel from 40 US states, but 75 percent are from other counties in North Carolina. In 2016, the occupancy was at 97 percent and Rathbun served more than 2,000 families and 4,500 individuals.
Along with a staff of nine, 66 volunteers donated 6,000 front-desk hours during 2016 alone. When Key founded the facility, she set forth an intention for the crew of trained volunteers to comprise the heart of the house.
“She was very specific about having volunteers staff the front desk,” says Dean. “She wanted the fresh element of a new face greeting the guests every three to four hours. We still have volunteers today who have been coming every month for the past 20 years.”
Coordinator Christian Witt organizes the volunteers and front-desk operations. “Our volunteers make the guest experience at Rathbun truly exceptional,” he says. “They are warm, caring and dedicated to making our unique facility a ‘home away from home’ for those going through trying situations.”
Arriving for a visit, I was immediately put at ease by the two women I found smiling at me from behind the counter where I checked in. Judy Domer and Ginger Sink have both been volunteering here for many years.
“As a volunteer, you get to see how grateful families are for the opportunity to stay here,” says Domer. “They are always saying ‘thank you’ and telling us what a difference the Rathbun House has made for their stay in Asheville.”
In addition to the receptionist role, volunteers also donate time to stock the food pantry and manage the many books and magazines in the library. Churches, civic groups and previous guests organize food drives and provide canned goods, coffee, tea and snacks for the guests. Mission Health holds a food drive for Rathbun House twice a year so employees throughout the system can donate food items to the pantry.
“Rathbun House operated as a standalone nonprofit for 19 years and Mission and St. Joseph hospitals have always been major partners in our mission to respond to needs of the people of Western North Carolina,” says Dean. In 2013, Rathbun House became a department of Mission Health and is now owned and operated by Mission Health. The following year, Key passed away and, in 2015, Dr. Rathbun died at the age of 101.
“As they envisioned, Rathbun House is all about the people,” says Dean. “We receive some of our guests within 24 hours of their family health crisis and they are very stressed when they walk in the door. We greet them and help as much as we can.”
It was evident that everyone I met in the facility feels grateful to serve the guests coming here to find some much needed rest, respite and solace during one of life’s toughest challenges.
Volunteer Domer sums it up: “Having a loved one in the hospital is difficult, but if you have a safe, comfortable place to stay that is just minutes away from the hospital—where you can even prepare your own meals if you wish to—it can make a difficult situation somewhat tolerable.”
Monetary donations are welcome and appreciated as are donations of food and books. Learn more at missionrathbun.org or by calling 828.251.0595.