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The support team has provided a meal every other day for the past year, giving Toni and Tinker more time to spend with Elizabeth. “They really needed help,” says Norris. “They’ve been providing her care 24/7 for a long time.”

Norris with Elizabeth and her parents, Toni and James “Tinker” Turner.
Megan Morr / Duke University Photography


Norris with Elizabeth and her parents, Toni and James “Tinker” Turner.


With respite care from a volunteer nurse on the care team, the Turners recently went out alone—to the mall and to dinner—for the first time in 15 years.

“We sat down and I looked at Tinker and said, ‘I don’t know what to talk about,’” says Toni. “You know, you just forget what it’s like to go out alone.”

Norris says her journey to Elizabeth Turner’s bedside has been “a leap of faith every step of the way.” When she learned her 2005 summer field education assignment was to revitalize Union Grove’s health ministry, she says “I had no idea where to start.”

She called on Susan Dunlap, an adjunct assistant professor with whom she had done an independent study on pastoral care of the sick. Over coffee, Dunlap told her about Project Compassion, a five-year-old non-profit best known for advance care planning and support care teams. Unlike hospice, this free community service provides volunteer support teams for those who need temporary care after surgery or accidents.

The genius of their care team model, says Dunlap, is that it draws on the patients’ own networks and asks: Who do you want on your team? Volunteers may include any combination of church members, neighbors, or other friends, as well as newcomers.

“I’m totally sold on the concept of care teams for churches,” says Dunlap, who learned about the organization while doing research for Caring Cultures, a book on how three Durham congregations—one mainline Protestant, one Hispanic and one Pentecostal Holiness—care for one another. A breast cancer survivor featured in the book was so moved by her church care team that she volunteers to visit Dunlap’s classes and share that experience.

“Care teams put patients in touch with their faith,” says Dunlap. “And they become a powerful experience of God for the team members.”

Founded in 2001 by community volunteer Mary Sullivan, Project Compassion helped Norris organize a care team meeting for the Turners at Union Grove. At the first meeting, 20 volunteers showed up.

“Project Compassion’s approach to care takes the burden off the individual,” says Norris. “It’s a shared responsibility, rather than any one person being overwhelmed. Some people love to cook, some just want to make the deliveries. The model helps build relationships among the team members and it’s not overwhelming at all.”

A support team leader makes certain that the monthly meetings last no longer than 59 minutes. “We never go over,” says Norris, who currently leads three teams: In addition to the Turners’, she organized a team for a divinity couple expecting their first baby, and another for elderly residents of a local nursing facility.

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