In Texas, CEO leads Christian Care Centers through bankruptcy and sale
MESQUITE, Texas — In telling her life story, Sabrina Porter…
DELAWARE, Ohio — In 1974, Larry Harris was working as a salesman and training to become a manager for Glick Furniture Co., then the largest furniture retailer in central Ohio.
That’s when Frank Chappell, a fellow member of the Northland Church of Christ in Columbus, approached Harris about a different career opportunity.
Chappell, one of the founding board members for a nursing home started by members of Churches of Christ, asked Harris, then 25 years old, to serve as the fledgling ministry’s administrator.
“To tell you the truth, going through school and college, becoming a nursing home administrator was probably the last thing I would choose to do,” said Harris, a 1972 graduate of Harding University in Searcy, Ark., with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
But Harris visited other senior living facilities, quizzed experts about the field and prayed about Chappell’s offer.
“I decided to go ahead and spring for it,” said Harris, who started work in early 1975.
Nearly 48 years later, as Harris prepares to retire in January as CEO of Willow Brook Christian Communities, the once-struggling 25-bed nursing home has grown to three locations.
With assets exceeding $100 million, Willow Brook operates a single campus in Columbus — its often-expanded original site — and two in the community of Delaware, about 30 miles north of Ohio’s capital city.
“It’s one of the most highly respected senior living communities in Columbus — one of the fastest-growing cities in the country,” said Adam Metz, Willow Brook’s chaplain and minister for the Alum Creek Church of Christ in Lewis Center, Ohio.
“While it has an ecumenical culture with a diverse resident population as well as its staff,” Metz added, “the roots of the Churches of Christ remain at the foundation of the organization.”
Combined, the faith-based organization’s three campuses house nearly 700 residents and employ more than 500 staff members.
Yvonne Campbell, 98, a member of the Spring Road Church of Christ in Westerville, Ohio, said she has lived at Willow Brook Christian Home in Columbus for five or six years.
She enjoys playing bingo and never misses the Bible studies and worship services offered at the senior living center. “It’s a very, very good place,” Campbell said.
Fourteen members of Columbus-area Churches of Christ, plus two resident representatives, make up Willow Brook’s governing board.
“It’s our job to plant the seeds and water,” Peggy Tidwell said of Willow Brook’s Christian mission.
She said she welcomes the opportunity to serve in the nonprofit world in a way she cannot in the church.
“What makes Willow Brook unique from a lot of other businesses I see is this: It’s the quality of the leadership that starts at the top,” she said, singling out Harris. “This gentleman right here has the extraordinary ability to hire quality people.”
From its humble start, Willow Brook has broadened its offerings to include independent living, assisted living, transitional living, memory care, skilled nursing care, rehabilitation, respite and adult day programming.
“You look back on it, and it’s a beautiful story,” said Harris, now 72. “And I do feel that it’s been divinely directed.”
The late Leslie Ward, who attended the Seventh Avenue Church of Christ in Columbus (now the Fishinger Road congregation), cast the original vision for what became Willow Brook.
In the 1960s, Ward dreamed of a Christian care center for older adults. He later recruited the first board of six, including Chappell, who served for 45 years until his 2017 death.
The nursing home opened in 1972 — a half-century ago.
Ward “died in 1980, never having witnessed our first expansion,” Harris wrote in Willow Brook’s quarterly magazine. “I like to think he would be pleased to see all the good that has come from his dream.”
The future CEO grew up in Carthage, Mo., in the state’s far southwestern corner near the Oklahoma-Kansas border. Harris met Janet, his wife of 49 years, at Harding. After they married in 1973, they moved to Columbus, her hometown.
When Harris accepted the nursing home job, he inherited a major challenge.
“It was a struggling little facility. It had a very bad reputation. You walked in, and you had to hold your nose because it smelled so bad.”
“It was a struggling little facility,” he said. “It had a very bad reputation. You walked in, and you had to hold your nose because it smelled so bad. And it was technically bankrupt when I took over. I mean, they were really struggling.”
In contrast to that scene, Harris discussed his Willow Brook tenure over a made-to-order breakfast at a fresh, modern restaurant inside the organization’s Delaware Run campus. Servers take orders from residents and guests. Flower bouquets decorate the shiny wooden tables as guests sit in cushioned chairs.
“I came on board,” the CEO said of his 1975 arrival, “and the first thing I did was start raising some money and getting it on a more stable financial footing.”
Soon, Willow Brook began expanding — and became a focus of ministry among area congregations. Until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, volunteers from Churches of Christ regularly conducted services at all three campuses.
“Willow Brook truly is the crowning jewel of the ministry of Churches of Christ in metro Columbus, and it has more than stood the test of time from a vision 50 years ago,” Metz, the chaplain, said in an email to The Christian Chronicle.
If not for the pandemic, Harris might have retired a few years ago.
But he felt compelled, he said, to stick around and lead Willow Brook through that extremely difficult time.
The long, lonely COVID-19 lockdown hit nursing homes and retirement communities particularly hard.
“We were slammed. A lot of people died. A lot of staff fled.”
“We were slammed,” Harris said of Willow Brook’s experience. “A lot of people died. A lot of staff fled.”
Departing employees feared for their own lives, the CEO said, “because people were actually dying.”
That was a heartbreaking time, said Paul Gartman, Willow Brook’s immediate-past board president and a member of the Fishinger Road church.
“You hear the word hero, but Larry and his staff — they were literally heroes,” Gartman said. “They were doing everything they could to contain it.”
Via frequent telephone calls, Harris kept board members advised of the latest developments in the crisis.
“Here I am sitting in my home, my office, isolated, no one around,” Gartman said. “And it’s like I’m listening to a battle, a war going on … and these people were right in the middle of that with people dying and hospitalized. … You could hear the agony and the grief.”
Related: A long, lonely lockdown
But Harris said Willow Brook’s nurses and nurse aides deserve the most praise.
“They were putting themselves into the line of fire every single day coming into work,” he said, “and this was before we had any testing, vaccinations, anything.”
After a nationwide search, Willow Brook has named Troy McKnight to succeed Harris.
McKnight has spent the past seven years as executive director of Christian Care Centers Inc.’s Fort Worth, Texas, campus. Like Willow Brook, Christian Care — which operates three Dallas-Fort Worth locations — is associated with Churches of Christ.
“We are thrilled that Troy has accepted the role to lead the Willow Brook team,” Peggy Tidwell said in a statement. “His talent and enthusiasm will be an asset for our organization as we begin our 51st year in 2023.
“I also want to thank Larry Harris for his instrumental guidance as we finalized the selection,” she added. “His ongoing encouragement and support in this transition has been invaluable.”
Even in retirement, Harris, a father of three and grandfather of one, said he plans to remain connected with Willow Brook.
“Janet and I plan to continue coming in for our little weekly dinners,” he said. “I plan to continue meeting with this guy (chaplain Metz) and some of the other leaders.
“I expect to be invited to the Christmas party,” he added with a chuckle.
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
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