By Tina Irgang
Carrie Howell leads Hospitality House of Charlotte, a nonprofit that provides lodging for families with a loved one who is going through a medical crisis. As she enters her fifth year as executive director, Howell reflects on how she helps staff members deal with a challenging, emotionally charged work environment, and on what the future holds for Hospitality House.
What’s the mission of Hospitality House?
Howell: Basically, we are lodging families who are going through a medical crisis. High numbers come from families going through cancer treatments, an organ transplant, a traumatic injury or illness, and also cardiac issues. Those are our big four. The patients have to be actively receiving treatment at one of our local hospitals, Carolinas HealthCare System and Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center. We just serve the families who are basically in high crisis. They don’t necessarily have to have a huge financial need — even families who are well-off can’t always get into hotel rooms, because Charlotte is such a busy city. We have 22 bedrooms, and we’re at 100 percent occupancy most nights, and basically we’re just providing a home away from home, for patients of every age.
How did you come to join the organization? What attracted you to it?
Howell: My heart has been for nonprofit organizations since graduating from graduate school, and … my background is in mental health counseling. I did a little work outside nonprofits for a while. I worked for the state of South Carolina doing some mental health work. Then I went a little corporate, but I just had to go back into nonprofit work. That’s where my heart is. I’ve run a home for teenage girls and I’ve also worked for a hospice organization, so it’s a little bit of both. Our patients aren’t all hospice patients, but it was still kind of a perfect fit.
Hospitality House must be a very emotional setting to work in. How do you keep your staff from getting overwhelmed?
Howell: It is so overwhelming, but there is also such a sense of humbleness, because any day you come to work and don’t feel well and you see a patient who’s just undergone days or months of chemotherapy, it’s tough not to leave feeling just grateful for your health. So part of it is picking the right staff, nurturing the staff relationship, making sure my door is open and there’s a conversation. I try to be aware of when situations really affect staff members, because a lot of our staff members have been affected by cancer, transplants or trauma in their own family. We don’t really do team building because our house never closes, but we take some time, whether it’s grabbing lunch or celebrating together.
How do you find people who thrive in this kind of environment?
Howell: A lot of times, during the interview process, someone shares a story about their life, because people often get drawn to us based on their own experiences. It’s important to be aware of how they respond, how fresh the situation is for them. If they’ve just lost a child to cancer or a significant other to a transplant, I try to make sure we have an open conversation about what the house is like, and that you will have to be face to face with that kind of situation. It’s just kind of screening how raw the emotions are. And then if we feel like they’re a good fit, we’re just kind of checking in on them regularly.
How do you personally deal with it when things get tough?
Howell: Last week, we had quite a difficult week. We had eight families impacted by the loss of someone. Part of it is, I having been in nonprofits for a long time, and dealing with people who have a loss, I try to not take it internally as much, but I go and be with the family if I can. It’s not grieving with the family, but just being an active part after they’ve lost a loved one.
What’s the biggest challenge of leading Hospitality House?
Howell: I think meeting the demand. We work with two hospital systems, and the demand is huge. Trying to figure out if we are ready to grow. We’re definitely slated to grow, but whether we’re internally ready or not, financially, and have the right donor base. Fundraising is always the toughest part, but it’s an easy place to love and I think that radiates to our donors. But there are a lot of nonprofits in Charlotte, so the competition is tough for the same dollars. That’s probably the biggest challenge, and turning families away who need a spot. That’s close to my heart, making sure they don’t have to sleep at the hospital for days and days.
What are your plans for Hospitality House’s future over the next few years?
Howell: Personally, this is my big-picture vision: I would love to see us meet the demands of both of our hospitals. Maybe through cancer lodging specifically, possibly bone-marrow lodging for families. I’d love to see us have services on-site, in the house, so that maybe families and patients wouldn’t have to go back and forth. … And also just for people in our city to continue to be excited about us, because a lot of people don’t know we’re here. If you live in our county, you can certainly use our home, but you may choose to go back and forth between your house and the hospital.
Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about the numbers, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email firstname.lastname@example.org.