Editor's Note: Founded in 1919, this year marks the 100th anniversary for South County Health. As part of our community outreach efforts, The Independent has partnered with the organization on a series of stories related to the history and mission of South County Health. They will run periodically in our newspapers this year and will appear online on our website at IndependentRI.com.
WAKEFIELD, R.I. – Although the word has never appeared in its name, South County Hospital has been a “community” hospital from the start.
The community clamored for the hospital, funded it, and continued to offer money, goods, and support whenever needed.
Since the early days, when farmers dropped off bushels of potatoes for the cafeteria, to today, when an army of volunteers escorts patients to their appointments, the community has been the backbone of the hospital.
This support has taken many forms – bequests of land and money; donations of goods and services; events held to raise funds; and volunteered time.
It started with one woman
The hospital’s first and most important benefactor was Miss Caroline Hazard, who started the movement to establish the cottage hospital at 23 Kenyon Ave. in 1919. She largely funded the purchase of the house, which cost $4,950, and its renovations. Almost immediately the community swung into action, collecting money and goods for its first year.
After a meeting in September, the Narragansett Times reported, “Checks and pledges for over $1,700 were handed over to the treasurer,” Thomas G. Hazard Jr. “One society is already hemming towels; jelly and canned vegetables are promised.”
Events were held to raise money. In November 1919, Mrs. John S. Kenyon of Shannock hosted a whist social at her home to benefit the cottage hospital, and Mrs. Lulu Schlesinger, a hospital trustee, followed suit.
The construction of the new hospital on the grounds of the Town Farm, however, would require much more than jelly jars and card parties. While the building was estimated to cost as much as $150,000, the fund drive goal was $225,000.
Dozens of committees were created, their volunteers fanning out into Washington County to collect as much money as possible. Caroline Hazard donated $65,000, and the community dug deep for the rest – an astonishing $316,214 altogether.
The new hospital had scarcely opened its doors in December 1925 when talk began of building a separate residence for nurses. The children and sister of Helen Hazard Bacon, a hospital trustee who had died shortly before the hospital’s 1925 dedication, funded construction of Bacon House.
One month in 1926 is typical of the sorts of small events that helped support the hospital. That September, a party at the Willow Dell Beach Club in Matunuck raised more than $400; the Community Players put on a show that yielded $100 for the hospital, and Mrs. Leon Franklin of Hope Valley held a private sale of antiques and donated the $50 proceeds.
Caroline Hazard continued her support. On July 24, 1929, she offered up the family home, Oakwoods in Peace Dale, for a Garden Party to benefit the hospital. Guests would enjoy the rose garden at Oakwoods, “a replica of the Sulgrave Manor rose garden, not very far from Banbury Cross in England.” Built of the same dimensions, it featured a “hardy border” of rhododendron hedge, wisteria vine, holly trees and purple beech.
The Dunes Club in Narragansett also became the site of frequent hospital benefits, and the club and the hospital have for years enjoyed a long and productive relationship. The club was built on the ocean in Narragansett Pier in 1928 and rebuilt after suffering damage in the Hurricane of 1938.
In 1939, when hospital superintendent Maud F. Denico resigned and moved out of Bacon House, apparently taking her furniture with her, the hospital borrowed furniture from the Dunes Club for the incoming superintendent.
In 1941, the Dunes Club hosted the Annual Charity Dinner and Ball for the hospital.
Almost every year since, some sort of hospital event has been held at the club, from soirees to fashion shows to Women’s Wellness Day, which was launched in 2007. In addition, many doctors and administrators became club members, further cementing the relationship.
But perhaps the most significant community effort came in 1932, when the Women’s Auxiliary was founded. This organization would prove to be the most enduring hospital benefactor, channeling many scattered efforts into one solid focus.
The Auxiliary came about at the height of the Great Depression, when the hospital was borrowing money to stay afloat. By 1932, its debt totaled $7,000, with no end in sight, as hospital fees could not keep up with costs.
The Women’s Auxiliary units would be divided geographically, mimicking the 1924 fund-raising efforts to build the hospital. The idea was credited to Mrs. S.R. Baldwin, while Ruth Robinson, a longtime hospital trustee, suggested that a male counterpart – a “men’s board” - be established as well.
Although the trustees affirmed her suggestion by vote, this idea apparently was ahead of its time and went nowhere.
With fundraising a top priority, Auxiliary members made neighbor-to-neighbor appeals. A Penny-A-Day project proved a lucrative and effective way for those of modest income to support their community hospital. By 1938, the boxes were collecting more than $2,800 a year.
For some reason, the hospital abandoned the Penny-A-Day project in 1939, asking residents to turn in their boxes. Instead the hospital would conduct an annual appeal by mail. At this point the hospital was $12,000 in debt and officials may have felt the need to reach as many people as possible.
Over the years, the Auxiliary has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy furniture and equipment for the hospital and has provided volunteers who escort patients, work in the coffee shop, and serve other necessary functions.
In 1992, the organization’s 60th anniversary, more than 350 volunteers donated 36,000 hours of service to the hospital. In the last fiscal year (2018), that number was 37,000 hours, with volunteers assisting 20,000 patients and visitors.
Volunteers work in virtually every hospital department, enhancing the patient experience with bedside visits, visitor escorts, and deliveries of flowers and comfort items. Approximately 23 percent of those volunteers are men.
The Auxiliary still runs the coffee shop, on the first floor of the Sturges Building, where its volunteers include retired urologist Dr. Alexander A. McBurney, who has been working there once a week for about 16 years. It’s a favorite spot for retired doctors to have lunch or coffee.
“We donate a lot of money,” McBurney said. “The coffee shop, the gift shop and the fashion show donate $250,000 to the hospital, $50,000 for community outreach” over three years.
Among the recent Auxiliary donations: $200,000 to the 1999 capital campaign; $75,000 for the Surgical Pavilion; $100,000 toward the Cancer Center; and $13,000 for new hospice rooms in the Frost Family Pavilion. Over the years, the Auxiliary has paid to remodel the Read Wing waiting room; helped purchase equipment ranging from nuclear medicine to the new da Vinci Xi robotic surgical system; and established an endowment to award medical scholarships.
One of its more visible contributions has been student artwork on the first-floor corridor, which outpatients and visitors cannot help noticing as they enter the hospital. Auxiliary Vice President Pat Jensen came up with the idea in coordination with South Kingstown High School teacher Lori Jeremiah in 1995 and the project was quickly expanded to include other South County schools, whose artwork can also be found in patient rooms.
But no history of the Auxiliary would be complete without mentioning some of the many women who have led the organization over the years:
Elsie Bowler, who served as superintendent of the hospital at various times from 1942 to 1954 and later was president of the Auxiliary.
Betty Potter, daughter of Dr. Henry B. Potter, who not only led the organization but donated $10,000 and the contents of her house to the hospital when she died in 2002. She also served on the Board of Trustees.
Doris Manganaro, widow of Dr. A.L. Manganaro, who served as president of the Auxiliary from 1992 to 1998 and prior to that as hospital volunteer coordinator. The files of the Auxiliary are full of her memos, which gently and sometimes firmly nudge hospital volunteers and officials to improve the patient experience. No problem escaped her attention, including nurses who did not acknowledge volunteers; aging infrastructure; and lack of computer access to patient records. Manganaro died in 2016.
Miriam G. O’Neill, Auxiliary president from 1988 to 1992 and a hospital volunteer for 30 years. In her 1990 report as Auxiliary president, she nicely summed up its mission: “to assist the Hospital in its efforts to provide quality care to those in need.”