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Norris passes around a calendar so the entire month’s support can be scheduled, and time is built-in for concerns and joys. Experts, such as a physician who treats Batten disease, are invited to share information and answer questions.

Norris remembers “always wanting to make a difference” as she was growing up in Huntsville, Ala. But the path she imagined for herself pointed to the courtroom, not the bedside.

Norris with Toni Turner.
Megan Morr / Duke University Photography


Norris with Toni Turner.


She majored in English and political science at the University of Alabama-Huntsville and planned to become an environmental or children’s legal defense attorney. But several years after college, she found herself working as a legal assistant doing international treaty analysis for the U.S. Army.

“I realized that I was in an environment where I didn’t feel like I was making a difference,” she says.

She became a hospice volunteer, working with families in a bereavement program. And then her grandmother died. “That was a huge loss,” says Norris. “It re-energized my search for something with meaning and purpose. End-of-life care is where it all came together for me.”

Friends and mentors suggested she look at Duke Divinity School, where a new institute dedicated to end-of-life issues was based. “I jumped on the Web and found the Duke Institute on Care at the End of Life (ICEOL),” says Norris. “I recognized right away that it was something I wanted to be a part of.”

Once at Duke, Norris tailored her master of divinity degree around end-of-life care. In January 2005, just after ICEOL Deputy Director Jeanne Twohig arrived, Norris was there to welcome her.

“This student came knocking on my door and said, ‘I see you haven’t even unpacked. I’ll come back.’ And she did!” says Twohig, with a grin. “Sonia just had a burning passion to do this work.”

The Union Grove UMC/Project Compassion collaboration Norris led was so successful that Twohig and her colleagues at ICEOL took note. With funds from the Merritt and Susan Jones Endowment, earmarked specifically for educational opportunities for pastors and divinity students, Norris has served a 15-hour-a-week internship at Project Compassion.

For James Brooks, director of Project Compassion, Norris’s presence has meant “we’ve been able to do more research, provide more support, and become better equipped to engage with the community. We are coordinating at a more intentional level, and we’ve been able to offer Sonia a chance to grow in this field.”

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