It takes just one meeting or a chance conversation with Sister Jean Rhodes to see a magnetism that connects all things together, a charisma that can create happiness in hearts, a humbleness that is strong and unshakable and an infectious spirit that carries into all of her endeavors.
Amazingly, many of these qualities can be seen from across the room.
Her smile is constant, yet never forced. Her penetrating eyes make you feel as if there were no one in the room, even though you know different. Her voice and speech cantor are paced and peaceful, leaving openings for laughter, tears, facial expressions, nods and cues that make a normal interaction seem like a gift exchange at Christmas.
And while you can’t always see her ears because of her long hair and coif, it’s secondary because Sister Jean listens with her soul.
She doesn’t like to be glorified and always deflects the attention and praise to a Higher Authority.
Sister Jean’s words and actions say, “Everything will be OK,” which seems to echo through the psyche of everyone, because many times the confirmation of hope is a breakthrough that starts the rolling miracle ball.
But her greatest ability may be how she inspires, motivates and bonds people together for a common cause. In most cases it’s about helping another person or a group of people.
It is neither ironic nor coincidental or fate that Sister Jean started a fire inside scores of Fayetteville residents 20 years ago when she came here from Baltimore to form an organization whose goal was to provide free health care for low-income residents in Cumberland County.
She was merely obeying orders from the Sister Virginia Ann Brooks, leader of the Daughter’s of Charity and her God. Sister Jean didn’t care about the details, such as having the required experience or where money would come from to fund the venture. Things like that didn’t matter because Sister Jean knew God would supply the necessities.
For two decades, flocks of volunteers caught her spirit and began donating their time, money and services. Some were well-know community figures. Some were more common folk.
None of that mattered.
It is no by no accident that CARE is the acronym for Compassion, Assistance, Referral and Education. Through the years thousands of people have received care from medical, dental, clinical, pharmaceutical, surgical and administrative volunteers.
Sister Jean’s network of about 400 people got together November 14th to laud 20 years of service to the low-income people. The group was wise enough to fly her in from St. Louis to be the guest speaker for the dinner. She spent six pivotal years with CARE and no one has forgotten how and what she did during the organization’s formative years.
Little has changed, as Sister Jean’s words of unification for the cause were as strong as ever. Even the fictitious Flying Nun of TV, Sally Field, wouldn't have stirred the crowd more than Sister Jean, who could personalize the same message a thousand times over.:“While our nation is attempting to get affordable health care there will always be people falling through the cracks,” she said. “They don’t have names or numbers, but they are your mother, your brother, your sister or your father. About 48,000 adults in the county have no health insurance.”
She then read a quote from Margaret Meade: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
Sister Jean knew it was impossible to thank everyone, but mentioned Dr. Tinsley Rucker, Ken Lancaster, CityView Publisher Marshall H. Waren, area churches, Labcorp, Cape Fear Valley Medical Center, Womack Army Hospital, the Fayetteville VA Hospital, Carolina Imaging, Valley Regional Imaging, Cathy Ory, medical and dental workers and every volunteer who selfishlessly gave to help others.
“You’ve changed the world, almost unbelievable and at the same time miraculous,” Sister Jean said.
Later, she told the crowd a miracle is not walking on water, it’s when an individual recognizes a need and offers of themselves to change the world.
“Do what you can, when you can, because you can,” she said.
Colonel Steve Brewster, who runs the residency program that supplies doctors for the family health clinic, said it’s a win-win deal for everyone.
“Out doctors find out they love treating people in the clinic because the patients are always extremely grateful,” he said. Dr. Mark Stackle, a resident physician agreed. “It’s very a very rewarding experience,” he expressed. “But as you can see there’s more behind it than our efforts. This community is to be applauded for their continual support.”
Paying it forward
The torch of light that rescued low-income residents without insurance has become dual beacons of faith and reward for those who followed the lead at Sister Jean’s Care Clinic.
About five years ago, Steven Smith’s wife needed help from the clinic and discovered that giving someone a helping hand is a gift that pays off for everyone. So he decided to pass it on and make it a gift that keeps giving.
“I know the people who helped me are blessed and it wasn’t until I started working part-time for a group somewhat like this that I fully understood,” said Smith, who works as a dental assistant in Indianapolis. “There’s no greater feeling than having someone hug you and say thanks because you can see in their face how much it means to them. I do that at a local clinic once a month and would never have done so if I hadn’t hit on hard times and been helped by the Care Clinic. That whole experience brought my insides back to life.”
While no patient is charged they are asked to make a donation when leaving the visit. To date that pot has risen to about $230,000.
“They want a hand up; not a handout,” Rucker said. Rucker, who has been along every step of the way and sits on the board of directors, said it was significant that the organization hasn’t taken “government money,” and that the military has played a vital role. “About one-third of the volunteers are active duty or retired military,” he said. “Having a military presence has been a huge factor in keeping this going.”
Lancaster, a real estate agent who has been involved with the Care Clinic for 16 years, gave kudos to Fayetteville residents. “I’m still amazed at the volunteerism that exists,” he said. “That and Sister Jean’s work have helped a lot of people, some that wouldn’t have gotten health care if not for the clinic.”
Sometimes helping is simply doing something within your guise. Rachel Violette, who retired after working 23 years in civil service at Fort Bragg, started her clinic service by preparing dinners for board meetings. She also helps with bulk mailing, other assignment, such as coordinating the wine-tasting fundraiser and “anything I’m asked to do.” “It’s tremendously rewarding and I am so proud to be a part of a group who helps those in tough situations,” Violette said.
Karen Mantzouris, marketing coordinator for The Care Clinic, said more than 22,000 people have received help for their health and dental needs.
Not everyone at the dinner was a long-time volunteer. Lawyer Carrie Carroll has “only” nine years of service to the Care Clinic. “If you show up to volunteer there once most people are hooked,” said Carroll, who does administrative work for the clinic. “I went there thinking, I’m not a doctor or a nurse but how can I help? And I found out there were many ways. It’s very satisfying.”
At the conclusion of the night Board President Louis Cox and Ory gave a Sister Jean a plaque in appreciation for her work in helping put the clinic on a solid foundation. Put in perspective, it was but a token of a gift for a woman who inspired many people to give of their time and resources.
“Miracles unfolded,” Sister Jean said. “I thought the clinic would go on after I left, but you always wonder how long and if it will,” who was a surgical nurse in before becoming involved in the ministry in 1975. “I am thrilled to return her to see the life and change this group has and continues to make in the lives of others.”
The work of many people still left Sister Jean searching for words to capture the essence of the clinic’s growth and sustainability.
“Such miracles,” she said. “And you were all a part of it.”