Willow Brook is an epic love story spanning a full half-century. Since our founding in 1972, thousands of faithful friends have each written a piece of that story – generations of residents, their extended families, board members, and of course our staff angels. Some wrote just a paragraph or two. Others, a full page. Some submitted an entire chapter. A precious few have left their mark on most every page. Together, we have written a beautiful, winding tale of triumph and heartbreak, of faith and fulfilled dreams, of human frailty, perseverance, and celebration.
Entwined around each line is a golden ribbon of love.
I have served as Willow Brook’s leader for all but the first three of those 50 years. In quiet moments, I sometimes think back to those early days and reflect on some of the old friends entrusted to us – Herbie Strigle, Bessie Beard, Mary Shelton, Abe Goffman, to name a few. I doubt that these names ring any bells to you. There is almost no one around anymore who remembers that first wave of residents. But their faces and voices, their quirks and habits come percolating up for me from a deep pool of misty memories, and I smile.
And I look back at our halting start. By all rights, Willow Brook should not be here. On March 15, 1972, a board of six brave men (yes, all men back then) took a deep collective breath and ponied up $175,000 to purchase an unassuming 25-bed nursing home just north of Columbus. That fragile little care center was beset with troubles from the start. When I came on board in 1975, it technically was bankrupt (although it was an undeclared bankruptcy, thank goodness) and plagued with all manner of operational demons. The Ohio Department of Health had just revoked its license due to staffing inadequacies and code
violations. Staff members were downtrodden. The board was dispirited. There was talk that maybe those six had made a grievous mistake, and perhaps should be making preparations to sell.
Welcome aboard, Larry.
We rolled up our sleeves and got to work. We fixed the license transgressions and set about raising money to shore up finances. Things perked up, and before you know it, roaring earth movers and churning concrete trucks showed up for our first expansion project. We glided into our next development, Willow Brook Christian Village, a grand retirement community. And another, Willow Brook at Delaware Run. Wedged in between is an almost-unbroken succession of construction projects and renovations. There has rarely been a time when something or other wasn’t in the hopper.
That initial $175,000 outlay has swelled to $100 million. Those 25 residents now number 685. That little starter nursing home was all of 6,500 square feet. Today we have 684,000 under roof. That’s nearly 16 acres all framed up, bricked, and shingled.
Strangers tell me that Willow Brook has a golden reputation out there. “You guys are the best,” people say. Sound counsel cautions against believing your accolades, but so many bouquets have been offered that I am starting to accept a few.
No telling of the Willow Brook story would be complete without introducing you to two men who were vital in the planting and watering of this ministry: Leslie Ward and Frank Chappell. Willow Brook wouldn’t be here without their love and wise guidance in our early years. Leslie was our in-house prophet. In the 1960s, he dreamed of a care center for older adults, related to the Churches of Christ. He started talking it up, recruited that first board of six, and pushed toward opening day in 1972. He died in 1980, never having witnessed even our first expansion. I like to think he would be pleased to see all the good that has come from his dream.
Frank Chappell was a founding board member recruited by Leslie who served 45 years until his death in 2018. He was the elected president for 13 of those years. The first three years when that little nursing home was drifting as a ship without a rudder in a stormy sea, he stepped up and took the helm. His evenings and weekends were given over to his 25-bed passion, in addition to his full-time job as a chemist. Willow Brook would have collapsed without his selfless support. And mind you, he was never paid a nickel. His was a labor of love. Frank recruited me in 1975 and became my life-long mentor and guide. He died four years ago, and my heart still aches.
This past year, as we approached our half-century mark, we were in hopes of throwing ourselves a grand birthday bash. Turns out Covid said no, so we will just have to wait on that party. But I call on everyone associated with the Willow Brook ministry to silently reflect on the past 50 years, consider the good that is done every day within our walls, and then offer up a quiet prayer of thanksgiving.
About the Author:
The name Larry Harris is synonymous with Willow Brook Christian Communities. So much of what Willow Brook is today is because of the work of our fearless and outstanding leader, Larry Harris. Larry has been the CEO since 1975, and recently announced his retirement for January of 2023. To learn more about our Willow Brook leader visit our About Page.