In February of 2018, Sandy Hughes of Joplin, Missouri lost her husband to cancer, sending her on a path to create a space there for a “peaceful transition from life to death.” She co-founded Solace House, a non-profit social-model home for end-of-life care. After five years of struggles and successes, Sandy is now providing encouragement and insight for the Columbia team behind Caring Hearts and Hands while still working tirelessly in Joplin to care for guests and their family members.
“I was dealing with grief from the loss of my husband, and that gave me much purpose to help start an end-of-life care home,” Sandy said. “And because of that, that starting gate, it became cathartic to me. It helped ease my grief by making sure that other people had a place to go to, because I did not. Solace House is a community of hearts. And those volunteers that come are so dedicated. They just love it. They just love what they do. Caring Hearts and Hands, it’s going to be very successful, I assure you.”
Both Solace House of the Ozarks and Caring Hearts and Hands of Columbia are part of the Omega Home Network, which provides assistance to developing and operating social-model homes across the country.
Sandy visited Columbia on March 14 for a question and answer session to help share the knowledge she and her team have earned over the past several years.
“There’s no reason for reinventing the wheel, especially if we’re going to be helping a sister city,” Sandy said. “Columbia is special. And those individuals that were there that night that I got to meet are very sincere and very passionate about what they’re trying to do. And we cheer them on; we want them to be successful.”
Solace House began as Sandy gathered others in Joplin with a similar heart, as well as her husband’s oncologist, doctors, nurses, social workers and hospice providers. Within a year, the organization became an official non-profit, and by January of 2020 Sandy signed a lease for a house. They started turning this house into the perfect end-of-life home when COVID hit.
Though the pandemic certainly set them back, it also highlighted an even more intense need for a place like Solace House. With state safety guidelines, families were not allowed into nursing homes or hospitals to visit their dying loved ones. Good-byes were said through windows and phone calls. Many died alone.
So when Solace House finally opened in June of 2020, they were able to provide relief and comfort to many families. They allowed loved ones to visit and stay with their guests within the home – after COVID testing and with masks, of course.
“It was just an answered prayer for a lot of people,” Sandy said. “The timing was just incredible. Now, with that behind us, it’s been full throttle.”
The organization and others like it provide a free home for guests in their last month of life whose care needs cannot be met in their own homes, giving 24-hour support from volunteers for guests’ physical, emotional and spiritual needs. They do not replace medical care, but instead give a space for families to be around their departing loved ones in a caring and supportive environment.
“Oftentimes, when a guest comes to the house, they are exhausted from being in the hospital,” Sandy said. “When they come through those front doors, it’s as if a weight has been lifted off their shoulders. I have seen it over and over again. Solace House, it is truly transformational. I just can’t explain it any more than that. It’s just they know why we’re there. And we know why they’re there. And it’s just a matter of showing up at the house.”
With two beds in each bedroom, families are welcome to stay around the clock, doing laundry, showering, cooking and doing whatever else there, truly treating it as if they are in their own home.
“It’s not just taking care of the guest,” Sandy expressed. “I have found in the past year that we are really actually caring equally, if not more, for the family members. They are heartsick that they’re going to lose their loved one. And I find that we are picking up the pieces. I said that at the meeting in Columbia, just to be there for a loved one with some hand holding some hugging. It’s just so important. And I cannot emphasize that enough. In many respects, we’ll spend almost the equivalent with the family if not more than with our guest. And the guest is our focus. They’re inseparable.”
Now, Columbia can benefit from the lessons learned by Solace House and can find comfort in the established community of Omega Home Network.
From her experience, Sandy expects that Caring Hearts and Hands will face their biggest challenge in finding volunteers.
“Everything else is easy. It’s just finding the volunteers who have a heart for the mission. Once they come on board, and they have the experience, it’s easy. Our volunteers who have been trained have never left. They love what they do. But finding the volunteers, that’s the biggest challenge that they’re going to have.”
Looking forward, Sandy has high hopes as more areas recognize the need for spaces like Solace House and Caring Hearts and Hands. She recognizes the passionate and sincere hearts within this starting group.
“Once they start, they’re never going to look back,” she said. “Because it’s just going to keep going and going and going. And there’s going to be more houses like this in Missouri and across the nation. I’m just so excited for Columbia. There’s going to be a few hiccups along the way, some things that they didn’t plan for. But once they get that core group of volunteers trained, then they’re off and running. That’s all it’s gonna take.”