Paula and TJ Brown: When Cooking Dinner is About More than the Food

Written by Elizabeth Swaringen for UNC Health Care.

As a nurse at UNC Hospitals, Paula Brown, RN, knows firsthand the difference family presence makes in a patient’s healing. She also knows the importance of the care and feeding of family members — especially when home is two or three hours away.

So volunteering to cook dinner for guests at SECU Family House was a no-brainer for Paula and her 16-year-old son, TJ, a sophomore at Carrboro High School. It just took the inspiration of a like-minded 10-year-old boy to make it a priority in 2014.

“I’ve known about Family House since it was a dream, before the construction even began,” said Paula, recalling a massive yard sale to raise money for the 40-bedroom hospital hospitality house that offers safe and affordable accommodations to seriously ill patients and their families who come to UNC Hospitals for care.

And once Family House opened in March 2008 minutes from UNC Hospitals, Paula had always planned to volunteer, “but sometimes life gets in the way,” she said.

“I thought we were just feeding people, but it was so much more than that.”

“Then I learned more about the House and the good that happens there from Family House Diaries, the stories that are included in news for employees,” said Paula, who is in her 20th year as a nurse in the post-surgery acute care unit at UNC Hospitals. “It was the awe-inspiring story in October of a 10-year-old boy who cooks and serves that told us the time is now.”

Paula wasted no time getting on the dinner schedule. She called Allison Worthy, who coordinates volunteers at Family House, and nailed down Sunday, Jan. 19. Allison put Paula in touch with volunteers Charles and Patsy Harrison who lead a team that cooks dinner for guests twice a month.

She observed Team Harrison, asked questions and checked out the availability of crock pots and utensils in the community kitchen for the chili and cornbread that she and TJ had already decided would be their debut meal.

But it wasn’t just any chili. TJ, who enjoys cooking and aspires to be a chef, wanted to offer Cincinnati chili, which is served over spaghetti noodles. Chopped raw onions and cheddar cheese are optional.

“I really enjoy chili that way and wanted to give others the option,” TJ said, surmising correctly that most guests weren’t familiar with it. The Browns offered both a meat chili and a vegetarian chili, again giving guests choices to best suit their palates.

Mother and son spent the day before in prep: chopping the onions and browning the meat for the chili, chopping other vegetables for tossed salad, baking the cornbread muffins and the brownies for dessert. By noon Sunday, four crock pots were hard at work in the Family House kitchen.

“We prepared for about 50, forgetting that it was the MLK Holiday weekend and there would be a slimmer crowd as the hospital clinics were closed on Monday,” said Paula. “But it didn’t matter. Although we had fewer guests than we’d planned for, we had plenty of leftovers, and chili is always better the second day.”

Leftovers are always welcome and disappear at Family House because the illness of a loved one does not follow a mealtime schedule, said Allison, the volunteer coordinator.

“It’s about the community of support that forms around the shared meals.”

“Our guests always comment with gratitude and amazement about the volunteers who prepare the home-cooked meals here and the quality of the food,” she said. “But it’s beyond nourishing their bodies; it’s about the community of support that forms around the shared meals. We’ve steadily added Sunday night meals because Sundays have become a busy check-in day for guests. Like our guests we are grateful that Paula and TJ know their way our around kitchen, especially on Sunday nights.”

Paula and TJ saw — and felt — the gratitude firsthand. A lone female guest showed her appreciation by insisting that Paula accept a cash donation that could be used for the next dinner she and TJ prepare.

“That was one of those arguments that you can’t win, so I graciously accepted her gift, assuring her it wasn’t necessary, but much appreciated,” Paula said, noting that she and TJ had already discussed “next time” even before they had served the first bowl of chili.

And neither will forget the guest who slipped back into the kitchen after dinner, slammed his palm on the countertop to get their attention and declared,

“I just want to thank you. With her treatment my wife hasn’t felt like eating in over a month, but tonight she did. We enjoyed it.”

“I thought we were just feeding people, but it was so much more than that.”

“I thought we were just feeding people, but it was so much more than that,” said TJ, who enjoys the logistical challenges of cooking, especially for a crowd. “Family House is a haven for people. The reactions to our meal told us that. I had run by the house many times in better weather when training with my cross-country team, but I really didn’t know what goes on here. Cooking here was fun, and I look forward to coming back.”

Cooking at Family House also allows TJ to work towards earning the 25 community service hours he needs for high school graduation. But it’s not about that requirement, both TJ and Paula agreed.

“It’s the reaction we got from people,” he said. “It was emotional and genuine for us all. The fun of the cooking makes the service requirement easier.”

“It’s a win-win for all,” Paula said, beaming.

Will chili be their signature Family House meal?

“We’ll probably branch out, but we’ll keep with comfort foods,” said TJ. “You don’t want to go too exotic. You gotta eat sometime, and we need to make it easy for people to enjoy it, maybe meatloaf and my grandmother’s macaroni and cheese.”

Just as a 10-year-old boy inspired Paula and TJ to step up and cook a fellow nurse told Paula her unit is going to plan a meal at Family House.
“I just hope it’s my day off so I can participate,” she said.