Jessica is the daughter of Joe and Charlotte Spencer of Cleveland. After graduating from Bradley Central High School, she made the decision to attend Carson-Newman College and pursue a career in human services.
“I wanted to go away to school,” she said, “but yet be near enough to come home.” It turned out to be a good decision. She said she liked the place and the diversity where she could meet so many different people.
She graduated recently not only with a degree in human services, but some hands-on experience in her chosen field.
“I wanted to do something meaningful,” Spencer said. So, in her senior year, she asked if there was a club relating to the elderly in campus ministries.
It seemed the extent of activities for the elderly was a bingo game or something once every month. “There’s got to be something else,” she said, and began inquiries at the nursing home located beside the college. Since she had interned with hospice and also worked with assisted living in Cleveland, it was a natural transition to do volunteer work in a nursing home.
She recalled how, one day when she was leaving, she paused to talk to a patient. That patient smiled “as if she had given a million dollars,” Spencer said.
Just a “How are you” can make their day, she added.
But Spencer wanted to more to fulfill “her calling.” She said she had to step up and do something.
In her research, she was inspired by the “Make-A-Wish” program, which made people’s dreams come true.
“I want to make a wish for the elderly!” she declared and set about gathering information as to how to do it. That was before Christmas of 2010. When she came back to school after the holidays, she had her plan.
She posed the question to the director of Life Care of Jefferson City, asking, “What do you think?”
“Wonderful. Let’s do it,” was the reply.
Receiving an enthusiastic response, Spencer moved ahead to find a vehicle to work through. There was none on campus, so her next step was petition to organize a club.
“It was amazing,” she said. Everything was approved and set to go. They partnered with the nursing facility next to the school.
They started out with about 15 students who wanted to participate in the program. At their first meeting, training was given on topics such as how to talk to residents, not be offended, finding out about goals and what did residents want to do.
A “Dream Day” was planned so residents could express their dreams to the students. When they met afterward, the group talked about the residents’ dreams and decided which to do first.
The first was a young man, an accident victim, who was bedridden. He wanted to go to a rock concert.
“We brought it to him,” Spencer said. She hired a group (Party Boys from Knoxville) who played his favorite songs, including Elvis. The place was decorated in ’50s style, complete with lights and glow sticks and dancing girls.
“(He) still talks about it,” Spencer said. “It was just for him.”
The next event, Spencer said, was “the best.” A lady asked for a visit with a cat. Her own cat had died, and she wanted a cat to pet for a little while. Spencer wondered how it was going to work, but she went to Noah’s Ark looking for the right cat. She found one without front paws — perfect so there would be no danger of scratching or clawing.
“I prayed for that cat,” Spencer said. “... until it was in her lap.”
It was such a wonderful surprise, she said. “I’ve never seen anyone so happy.” She put the cat in the lady’s lap and it went to sleep in her arms during the long visit.
“It loves me,” the lady said. And every time the visit is mentioned, the lady remembered “it loved me.”
Spencer’s own dream continued to grow as residents had their dreams fulfilled — tons of dreams — from giving a woman’s wish of treating her family to a meal at Perkins to a ’50s dance with a deejay and the school’s football team as escorts.
Another time, a resident received books and one was treated to a spaghetti dinner with her daughter in an “Italian Restaurant” set up in the dining hall.
One lady got her own flower garden. She said, “They made me a flower garden — they loved me.” Then there was a “Girl’s Glamour Night,” special for a resident, who was finally able to get her fingernails done.
One dream — an adventure — will be remembered for a long time. Four men wanted to see pro wrestling and it was arranged to take them to Morristown. One had not been out of the nursing home since he had been in an accident. The men wore Carson-Newman hats and their names were announced at the matches. And, Spencer, said, “the men loved it.”
And the students loved giving the residents their dreams, Spencer said, but the people also fell in love with the students.
The Dream Catchers grabbed the attention of J. Mark Brown, director of News and Media Relations at Carson-Newman, and he wrote about how Spencer and the club had changed lives.
Spencer told Brown, “We went into the nursing home and asked patients about their dreams. It could be something they never go to do, or maybe something they haven’t been able to do in a while.”
And on award night at the nursing home, the Dream Catchers was named Volunteer Group of the Year. The group was also presented the William Wilberforce Social Entrepreneurship Prize from Carson-Newman psychology professor R. Larry Osborne, director of the college’s social entrepreneurship major. Too, one student won first place for her final exam special entry on Dream Catchers.
Although Dream Catchers is a nonprofit enterprise, support is need for the various projects. The organization has received donations from individuals who have heard of the venture, along with churches (including First Presbyterian in Cleveland, where Spencer is a member), and friends and family.
Dream Catchers will continue. Two senior girls at Carson-Newman will carry on the ministry at the college and Spencer is going to work on a local level to begin the program in Cleveland.
“I want to keep this alive,” Spencer said. “I love being in nursing homes and can’t give it up.” She said she was going to try to work Dream Catchers into schools and colleges in this area. “That is my big, big dream,” she added.
In the meantime, she said, she hopes to find work in this field. “This is what I want to do,” Spencer said.