05/24/07 — Back at O'Berry Center for a tour and reunions

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Back at O'Berry Center for a tour and reunions

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on May 24, 2007 1:45 PM

Donnie Johnson and Carlyle Brewington sat on a swing in Knights of Columbus Park at O'Berry Center Wednesday, reminiscing with Robert Eason, who still works there.

Johnson was in the maintenance department from 1976 to 1996, while Brewington said he started working in the dietary department Sept. 18, 1957, and was there for 30 years.

"When you work out here, you know everybody," Johnson said. "We worked together as a team."

"(Johnson) was my repair man and he didn't mind working on my deep fat fryers," Brewington remarked.

Eason started out in the dietary department more than 31 years ago and is now in housekeeping. Brewington was one of his first supervisors.

"Mr. Eason, I brought him out to wash pots and pans ... moved him up to kitchen helper," Brewington said with a laugh.

The three men crossed paths during O'Berry's employee appreciation and homecoming celebration, and the memories started pouring out.

"We talked about everything -- the Lord, what we're doing, our homes and the grass, life in general," Brewington said.

And also the occupation that bound them together for many years -- O'Berry Center.

"Things have changed 200 percent from what it was from 1957 until 2007," said Brewington, who was there at the very beginning.

"In fact, I served food to the first people that came in on Saturday afternoon. I was there Sunday morning to help feed them," he said.

Eason's mother, Ollie Sasser, had also worked at O'Berry, he said. She was there for five years and retired 25 years ago. Although she lives in sight of the grounds, until Wednesday she had not returned for a visit. Her son said he has kept her abreast in the meantime.

"I tell her what's changed every time I go home for lunch," he said.

Anne Turner's memories also dated back to the early days, having been the fourth person hired to work at the center in August 1957. She was there for four years, as secretary to the superintendent.

She moved to South Carolina to raise a family, but has returned to Goldsboro and now serves on the Human Rights Committee at O'Berry. She said it was wonderful to come back after 50 years.

"The thing that's so phenomenal (is) I have a special needs daughter, but when I was working here as a secretary, I never dreamed I would be the mother of a special needs child," she said. "This became my foundation."

Kathleen Smith retired in 1986 after 26 years at the center. She returned on a part-time basis and says she would likely still be there were it not for a stroke she suffered five years ago.

As she sat in a shaded gazebo with several other retirees, she commented about how wonderful it was to catch up with former friends.

Calvin Houpe could relate. Although he lives in Goldsboro, he said he rarely runs into those he used to work with every day.

"I really enjoyed seeing some of the old workers out here. ... The changes have been really great," he said.

The former cottage parent who retired as a group home manager said he never missed a day of work in 31 years and appreciated the opportunity to reconnect with those at the center.

Many retirees and former workers caught up with current employees and staff during the day over lunch. The day also featured displays of former newspapers from years past, a performance by the newly formed O'Berry Center Gospel Choir, campus tours and a chance to participate in the center's "Living History" by videotaping a memory or two for the 50th anniversary, which will be celebrated later this year.

The crowd surpassed expectations, with organizers estimating that more than 800 attended. Dr. Frank Farrell, center director, said a steady stream of retirees as well as former employees and clients now in group homes showed up.

"The overwhelming response was so great," he said.

Many comments were made about all the changes that have occurred over the years. Living quarters for individuals are no longer long hallways and cold wards, but feature a more cozy and personal feel, Farrell said.

"They go through the units and come out with amazement," said Linda Jones of volunteer services.

But mostly, the day's theme was fun.

"Coming back, seeing people they haven't seen in years, I think when the retirees see other retirees that they know, it helps good seeds grow because they don't see each other often," she said. "I'm hearing lots of talking about having lunch, getting together again."

One of those was Edith Hines, who first came as an employee in 1963 and worked in only one place for 30 years -- the beauty shop. She retired in October 1993.

"I haven't been back here to see anybody in 14 years," she said, noting how special it was to be back. "I love O'Berry. I thank God for O'Berry every day."

Now living in Greensboro, she said she was leaving with a list of contacts and plans to keep in touch with those she had connected with at the homecoming.

Retiree associations and programs like the Ambassadors, which recently formed as a volunteer outlet for retirees to support and promote the center, are one way Farrell said he hopes people continue to stay connected to O'Berry.

"I think people wanted to come back," Ms. Jones said. "We had bonds with the individuals here and we had bonds with the staff. That makes us one big family.

"It's been a fun day reliving those memories."

Deborah Exum, assistant to the director, likened the event to a family reunion.

"When you work with people, you can't help but become family," she said. "You come back here and see them, you reminisce. It's like old times."