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Building Bridges
By Elisabeth Stagg

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Sonia Norris D‘06 with Elizabeth Turner.
Megan Morr / Duke University Photography


Sonia Norris D’06 with Elizabeth Turner.


On a warm spring evening, Sonia Norris D’06 finishes classes at the divinity school, picks up a large pizza, and drives to Toni and James “Tinker” Turner’s ranch-style home in northern Durham.

The couple greets Norris at the door, puts the pizza in the oven, and invites her back to the bedroom of their 20-year-old daughter Elizabeth.

“Sonia always speaks to Elizabeth when she comes,” says Toni, her voice filled with gratitude. “All the support team people do.”

That support team reflects the efforts of Norris, who has brought together the Turners’ faith community with Project Compassion, a national leader in the field of volunteer care teams.

“Sonia has made such a difference in our lives,” says Toni. “She is a blessing.”

Elizabeth’s bedroom looks just as it did when she was in first grade, which was the last time she could really see it: pastel pink walls topped by a dainty border of wallpaper, girlish framed prints, soft stuffed animals on every surface. There’s a collection of porcelain dolls safe on a shelf.

“She started collecting those when she could feel the dolls, but could not see any longer,” explains Toni.

Norris takes Elizabeth’s hand and softly says hello.

“Elizabeth can’t say a lot,” explains Toni, “but she can say ‘Hey.’”

The Turners adopted Elizabeth, their only child, as an infant. She was healthy until first grade, when she began having trouble seeing the blackboard. A referral from the family eye doctor led them to Duke Hospital and, ultimately, the diagnosis of Batten disease. A rare fatal inherited disorder of the nervous system, it typically begins with vision loss and epileptic seizures. The disease, which is painless, gradually leads to progressive cognitive and physical loss with death resulting in the late teens to early 30s.

Norris, who graduated in May, organized a support care team for the Turners last summer at Union Grove United Methodist Church in Hillsborough, where Tinker’s family has worshipped for generations.

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