Nancy Zornes has lived a life of service to her community. Now retired, the Fort Smith resident spent years volunteering for worthwhile organizations, sixteen of them with Project Compassion, giving nursing home residents the love and companionship so many were lacking.
“My father and mother taught me at an early age to care for the elderly and to always give of myself and my love to others,” she says. “So, for twenty-five years of my life, not only in Project Compassion but to other family members, I was a caregiver.
“I truly loved interacting with all the residents. I must admit that it was a joy to walk into a room and see a welcoming smile from each person. Even today on days when I feel lonely, I can always reach into my memory of those I visited, and a smile comes into my heart.”
Nancy’s story mirrors those of thousands of other volunteers who over the past fifty years have improved the quality of seniors’ lives through the nonprofit Project Compassion. Launched in 1972, the organization performs many acts of kindness and caring for nursing home residents who might otherwise be forgotten, carrying forth the mission of founder Gloria White.
“They called her the ‘Banana Lady,’ because she brought forty-plus bananas to Parkview Nursing Home every Friday,” says Gloria’s daughter, Lisa Bell Henson of Farmington. “She was the ultimate professional geriatric nurse, personally greeting and ministering to each patient.”
Lisa recalls how effective her mother was in recruiting volunteers and raising money for the effort, moving Project Compassion from a one-woman crusade to a thriving organization.
“Dad was a busy physician in private practice, so Mom just took us with her as she started and conducted her nursing home ministry,” she says. “We watched her recruit an army of volunteers from all walks of life – clergy, musicians, church women, lay people.
“I saw her boldness in asking for money to raise funds for Project Compassion. We didn’t just watch Mom found Project Compassion, we grew up in it; she even had a particular way she wanted my sister and I to answer the home phone and take messages for her.”
Established as a one-to-one visitation program for nursing home residents in Fort Smith, the organization is now a United Way of Fort Smith agency and serves nursing homes in six counties including Crawford, Franklin, Logan, and Sebastian counties in Arkansas and LeFlore and Sequoyah counties in Oklahoma.
As the reach of the group’s work has grown, so has its programming, now including Hearts of Gold, an annual holiday gift drive that provides meaningful Christmas gifts to residents, many of whom lack or are separated from any family. There’s also a visitation program that targets youth to connect the generations called GrandFriends and Paws for Joy, a pet program whereby volunteers bring in their animals for residents to pet and love on.
The expansion of programs reflects Gloria’s drive to instill volunteerism early and promote greater generational understanding. It was a mission which Lisa and her older sister, Julie White Dinius, now of Redding, California, learned early.
“It made a big impact on me seeing the frail, lonely elderly sitting in wheelchairs and lying in bed, seemingly forgotten by the rest of the world,” Lisa says. “The smells and the sights were somewhat scary at first. Mom made it an educational event; she showed us how to talk to patients who were bedfast and how to do anything we could to bring joy to the residents. It was a formative experience from as early as I can remember to when I left home after marriage. It colored every aspect of our lives.”
Project Compassion’s programs and reach may have evolved, but the original mission and spirit of the organization hasn’t changed in the least.
“Mom instilled in us at a very young age that ‘to whom much is given, much is expected,’ and that we had a responsibility and an honor to serve those less fortunate,” says Julie. “Thanks to growing up as ‘Gloria’s daughter,’ she taught us to have eyes to see the needs around us and heed the calling to get involved.
“It is such a blessing to see how Project Compassion has grown in the thirty-plus years since mom’s passing. She would be so very proud of the ladies and men who have invested so much to continue to serve the elderly across several states. God has truly blessed the mission, the vision and the success of the ministry and I am honored to be a part of Gloria White’s legacy.”
As successful and well-regarded as Project Compassion has grown to be, it’s still recovering from one of the most difficult chapters in its five-decade history. When COVID struck, nursing homes were locked down for safety reasons and outside visits were suspended until further notice. Overnight, the ministry created solely to reassure seniors they were not forgotten was unable to reach the people who needed it most.
“It was challenging for us but agonizing for the residents,” says Marian Conrad, executive director. “Facility staff were overburdened and suddenly without critical supplies. Residents were upset because everybody had a mask on and that was scary at first. It was tough for our volunteers, too.”
*Project Compassion found ways to serve within the pandemic restrictions. Once the initial shock wore off, leadership began to find creative ways to connect that didn’t endanger residents’ health.
“We did video calls and window visits where we set up alternate ways to communicate and visit from outside, weather permitting,” Marian says.
“We played window tic-tac-toe. We continued our card and pet programs by collaborating with churches, home health agencies, schools, and civic organizations to help coordinate efforts throughout our communities.”
The group continued its improvised programming until mid-2021 when restrictions started to be lifted. Since then, efforts have focused on building the number of volunteers back up to meet the needs of residents and visitors alike.
“The pandemic brought loneliness and isolation to the forefront everywhere,” Marian says. Every age group and sector was affected with undeniable consequences. With those days behind us, Marian is reflective about what lessons were learned during that time, even as the organization prepares to mark its milestone anniversary.
“There was a global surge in awareness of the great need for social engagement of all age groups,” she says. “It forced us to find new ways to use volunteer skills and talents. Community interest in GrandFriends skyrocketed due to its focus on inter-generational relationships, so we created new pathways for those connections. People felt a renewed sense of responsibility to use their resources and talents for the greater good. Today, our programs are flexible and symbiotic with more opportunities for everyone to help carry Gloria’s mission of love into the next fifty years.”
Make plans now to attend Project Compassion’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, Tuesday, April 11 from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. The fundraiser will be held at the Festivity Event Center at 8400 Massard Road in Fort Smith. For more information, please email email@example.com.