Jennifer had just moved to Birmingham from California when she became very ill. Alone in a new city with a toddler daughter and a dear friend who had helped her to relocate, she found herself hospitalized with a collapsed lung, and as a result was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and renal cell carcinoma.
“I found this fantastic doctor at UAB who probably saved my life,” says Jennifer (Weld is withholding her last name due to privacy concerns).
But her living arrangements became difficult when the stress of treatment became too great for her friend. “I was going to have to live in Louisiana where my mother lives, which is a six-hour drive away,” she says.
Things got especially bad in late December, when doctors wanted to wait another 12 hours to decide whether to hospitalize her and she and her daughter had no place to go. A social worker called all of the agencies in the Birmingham area that provide housing for out-of-town patients and their families and found that none had an opening. “It was about then that I gave up,” Jennifer says. But the social worker was determined to help and made a few other calls.
Jennifer says the social worker returned and gave her good news. “I just talked to a man named Jason, and he just had a guest move out 15 minutes ago, and the apartment is yours if you want it,” she says the social worker told her.
Jason was Jason Carroll of Red Mountain Grace, a new organization designed to provide hospitality for patients like Jennifer. “Our goal is to show Christ to others through service,” Carroll says. He is founder and president of Red Mountain Grace, which opened its first two apartments in August 2013. A third apartment was added recently.
Jennifer is very grateful that she was able to move into the Red Mountain Grace apartment a few days later. “I can honestly say that I might not be here today if they had not done that,” she says. “I might have gone to a hospital in Louisiana where they were not equipped to deal with a person in the condition I was in.”
Jennifer is now on a maintenance treatment that will last two years. She and her daughter enjoy living in the one-bedroom, newly renovated apartment that Red Mountain Grace provides. She and Carroll’s family have become close, with the Carrolls and others providing support aside from the apartment. “They’ve done so much for us, emotionally, spiritually, mentally,” says Jennifer, 38, who also struggles with lupus.
Carroll says plans call for Red Mountain Grace to eventually buy and renovate an apartment building in the area near UAB and Children’s Hospital and be able to provide housing for 30 families or more. He says Red Mountain Grace organizers did a market assessment and determined that there is a shortage of 30 to 40 housing units for patients and families. When he spoke with social workers, “They said it is a party when we get someone in.”
For example, Hope Lodge, which serves cancer patients, had a waiting list of 18 at the time, and the Ronald McDonald House had a similar list.
Carroll says Red Mountain Grace has made a small start while it waits for approval for nonprofit status, which is expected to be completed in the fall. “We’re kind of a rootsy-type organization. We’re learning a lot,” he says. “We’re approaching it from a very businesslike angle so we can grow it.”
Carroll, 34, says he had reached a point in his life where he felt the need to give back to others. A 2002 graduate of Auburn University with a degree in health and hospital administration, he works in medical sales for Medtronic. In 2013, he had lunch with his best friend of 25 years, John Burdett. Burdett also felt it was time to do something for the community.
“We’ve known each other since third grade, lived across from each other, essentially,” Burdett says. “We just happened to get together at Slice. We decided God was calling us to do something a little greater with our lives.”
Carroll told Burdett a story about his wife’s family. When she was 14, her sister was born with a serious medical problem that required treatment in Birmingham. Her family had recently returned from the missionary field, and her father had taken a position as pastor at a small church in the Dothan area. The family had to come to Birmingham with their newborn but had no money to stay in a hotel. They were grateful that the Ronald McDonald House had a vacancy. They stayed for three weeks before returning to Dothan, where the baby died several months later.
“I think God planted a seed when his wife told him about that story,” Burdett says. The two longtime friends discussed ideas and settled on beginning Red Mountain Grace. “We realized that there were so many families coming to Birmingham that didn’t have that opportunity because the need is so great,” he says.
As a result, many families who cannot afford to stay in a hotel sleep in hospital waiting rooms. Others max out their credit cards paying hotel charges.
“You can’t work but you can’t afford to be away from your loved one. … It’s not just the poor that can’t afford it. The average American cannot go that long without working, but at the same time, their family member is more important. … It’s a huge need and we are just thankful to get to play a small part in that and very hopeful that we will get to play a large part in that,” Burdett says.
He says God is blessing Red Mountain Grace and its founders. “Right now, we are just a bunch of businessmen running it while we run our own businesses,” he says. A graduate of Emory’s Goizueta School of Business, Burdett is the COO at Hospicelink.
Once Carroll and Burdett decided the direction they wanted to take, they approached David Oakley, founder of Blue Canoe Properties, Select My Space and Alabama’s office of Hendricks-Berkadia. They asked him for one apartment to get Red Mountain Grace started, and he gave them two near UAB Highlands Hospital that had just been renovated. Carroll says he and Burdett committed to paying the utilities for the apartments if money from other sources was not available for that purpose.
The two furnished the two apartments and began taking referrals from hospital social workers. The first two guests arrived in August 2013. “We’ve been full since we started,” Carroll says.
Carroll says the organizers — including Oakley, who is a member of the board — are discussing their plans with other landlords who might provide apartments, as well as potential major donors who might help when a capital campaign kicks off. “We already have prospects to get three to four more by late August,” he says.
The business plan says $1.5 million to $2 million will be needed to buy and renovate a building. A capital campaign will be kicked off when the federal government grants Red Mountain Grace nonprofit status.
Gaining nonprofit status has taken longer than the group anticipated, but Carroll thinks that will be an advantage in the long run. They have gained experience with the slow start and will have something to show donors. “What we are doing now is sustainable long-term. We are leaving the door open” to other possibilities, he says. “In the meantime, we are going to keep growing through this model.”
The goal also is to hire full-time staff to run the program. Currently, Carroll deals directly with guests, who have his cell phone number to call if they need anything. “Our guests appreciate us,” Carroll says. “We are a little more hands-on.”
He adds, “Our goal is to show Christ to others through service.”
Carroll says he and other Red Mountain Grace board members are all active in their churches. He is a member at Church at Brook Hills, and Burdett attends Church of the Highlands. Volunteers from Church of the Highlands worked at Red Mountain Grace at a recent community work day.
Carroll says the experience of beginning Red Mountain Grace has affected his life. “We all experience the monotony of getting out of bed every morning, going to work…and doing it all over again. I do believe this was a calling from God,” he says. “I feel like you live once and you have to take some risks. To me, the most important thing is to know Christ.”
He says, “You want to make an impact on the world. That’s what we are called to do as Christians.”